Friday, December 14, 2007

Opening All Options For Refugees


By T. P. Mishra

The United States' offer of third country resettlement for the Bhutanese refugees has finally gained height, engaging both people and the authorities concerned in hot debates. The offer is likely to put an 'end' to the 17-year-long stalemate following the formal announcement to the refugees to fill up the resettlement forms available in dozens of places, including the Armed Police Force (APF) office.

US commitment
A senior U.S. official has said that if all things proceed smoothly, the first planeload of Bhutanese refugees is likely to land on U.S. soil by late January 2008. Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, during her recent visit to Nepal and, in particular, the refugee camps, has really geared up the resettlement process of the refugees.

Meanwhile, Sauerbrey has also stated that the U.S. government would recognise the desire of the refugees for repatriation to their original homeland even after their resettlement process. During her visit to two of the refugee camps, Sauerbrey assured the rights of the refugees to return to their home country.

Still a significant portion of the refugees want to be repatriated right now, they do not want third country resettlement. The obvious question at this hour is, what would be the future of those refugees who want to be repatriated under any circumstances? Will the Bhutanese who wish to get locally assimilated in the host country get that chance?

With the U.S. offer for third country settlement, division and polarisation of opinion among the refugees have been distinctly noticed. The incident in Beldangi camp on May 27-28 regarding a 'controversial' interview of Hari Adhikari Bangale, the then camp secretary of Beldangi-II, is a bitter illustration of the division among the refugees.

Even two innocent youths from Beldangi camp were killed in police firing during the latter's attempt to bring the situation under control. This incident occurred simply because Bangale advocated for third country resettlement. In another incident in Beldangi-II extension camp, a few huts belonging to those in favour of third country resettlement were vandalised. Some of them were even manhandled by a mob. All of these incidents leave a clear message that opening only one option would further derail the process of ending the refugee imbroglio.

Polarised Ideology
The literate youths among the Bhutanese refugees are for third country resettlement. The elderly, illiterate groups want to get repatriated. Meanwhile, what cannot be ignored is that a portion of the youths are in favour of a 'revolt' under the banner of the Communists Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM).
Not only this, a section of the people living inside the refugee camps have already obtained Nepalese citizenship identity cards. This figure has been hiked with the issuances of citizenship cards to four million people in Nepal prior to the Constituent Assembly polls. This ironically leaves a clear message that a portion of the refugees are even willing to get locally assimilated.

It is still a doubt whether those refugees, who have already obtained Nepalese citizenship, would be eligible for third country resettlement.

Majority of the so-called frontline leaders in exile, most of the political and a few apolitical organisations have been frequently opposing the offer of third country resettlement, claiming it would not do justice to the suppressed Bhutanese people. Since there is divided opinion among individuals, the question of driving everyone to a common consensus is difficult.

Thus, not only third country resettlement, the authorities concerned should work towards unlocking all possible options, including repatriation to their original homeland, Bhutan. The long-standing issue will get a safe landing only when all possible options are opened at a time.

It is equally necessary to note that any option, whatsoever it be, shouldn't be made a 'compulsory option' for the refugees. This will invite violence in the refugee camps.

Dignified Repatriation
It is true that options besides third country resettlement, such as dignified repatriation and local integration, are, with the flow of time, getting overshadowed. If the authorities concerned are truly committed to finding a durable solution to the Bhutanese refugee stalemate, then they should be working to promoting the refugee's sentiment by unlocking all options.

An individual's right to expression and, in particular, their right to choose any of the options should be promoted.

(Editor of Bhutan News Service, Mishra is also president of Third World Media Network, Bhutan Chapter)

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