Friday, December 14, 2007

Prospects Of Refugee Resettlement


By Indra Adhikari

At a time when Bhutanese refugees are busy expressing their interest and giving interviews to government representatives from the US and the Australia in Damak for resettlement to third countries, the country representative of the UNHCR for Nepal Abraham Abraham is wrapping up his five years of tenure in Kathmandu.

Abraham is leaving at a time when years of efforts for repatriation have failed, and the process for third country resettlement is beginning. He will be leaving Nepal for Canada - a month ahead of a section of Bhutanese refugees possibly leaving for western countries to start their new life.

In an interview with Nepalnews at the end of his tenure in Nepal, Abraham expressed hope that his dream of finding a lasting solution to the protracted Bhutanese refugee problem will come true in his absence as well.
Rizal's suggestion to resettle one member from a family was not taken into consideration.
Rizal's suggestion to resettle one member from a family was not taken into consideration.

On Sunday evening at Hotel Soaltee during his farewell party, Abraham in his most humble tone wished the top refugee human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal for early repatriation of Bhutanese refugees to their land.

The process of resettlement has moved ahead as planned by the UNHCR, to which the resettling countries have agreed and it has already been made public that family members would not be split when selected for resettlement.

To accelerate the resettlement process and to protect refugees willing to be resettled from being assaulted by the communist cadres, the Nepal government has deployed security personnel in all the camps at the request of the UNHCR. Alleging that the security personnel have been intimidating and harassing those refugees who advocate repatriation, Bhutan People's Party recently demanded removal of the security posts.

As usual, Abraham denied any straight comments on the demands but said that UNHCR is also mandated to find solution of the refugee crisis if host country and the country generating refugees fail to reach an agreement.

The UNHCR has already started distributing forms to refugees to express their willingness for resettlement. UNHCR office in Kathmandu and contact points in all the camps saw long queues of refugees filling the forms. But as interviews in Damak started, refugees looked confused on how the UNHCR selects people for interviews.

"It is first come first serve. We have no reason to discriminate any refugee," Abraham said.

The resettling countries interview refugees on the basis of the applications and family details forwarded by the UNHCR. The US government team has just completed its first round of interviews and the Australian team has started doing so from Sunday. Canada has informed the UN refugee agency that it will begin the process from 2009 while other countries who had earlier expressed interests to resettle the refugees like Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand are yet to say anything about the number of refugees they are likely to resettle.

Despite this, Abraham's initiation also received a fair amount of criticism, especially from the refugee leadership. Getting support from the refugee community was difficult without getting permission from the Nepal government, yet his humility towards the government for finally accepting the UNHCR proposal of resettlement remains high.

The major concern of the refugee leaders is the future of those refugees who would not be resettled. There are hints from Indian leaders in recent months that Bhutan might agree on repatriation once the population of the refugee becomes smaller. These statements are in line with the statement of Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee in June this year saying repatriation of over 100,000 refugees to their homeland will cause 'demographic imbalance' in that tiny kingdom.

UNHCR's attempts of getting support from the Indian government for repatriation did not yield any result. And now, the refugee leaders have accelerated lobbying among Indian leaders. In November, a number of senior journalists and parliamentarians on India during a seminar in New Delhi said they will soon visit Thimphu to push Bhutanese authority for allowing the refugees to cast vote in the upcoming elections and their early repatriation to avoid violent future in north-east India.

Under these circumstances, resettlement debates have overshadowed the repatriation agenda.
Euroepan Union also took interest in the refugee issue. EU lawmaker from UK visited Nepal, Bhutan and India as part of EU initiatie in finding solution of the refugee crisis.
Euroepan Union also took interest in the refugee issue. EU lawmaker from UK visited Nepal, Bhutan and India as part of EU initiatie in finding solution of the refugee crisis.

But Abraham claims, prospects of repatriation to homeland will not perish even after resettlement. "Refugees are guaranteed the right to return once environment is conducive in their country. At this time, the conditions are not conducive neither for repatriation nor to stay in camps further," he adds.

The future repatriation of the resettled refugees will largely be determined by the future political developments in Bhutan. At least to this day, hints from inside Bhutan are not encouraging.

The rejection of Bhutan 's election commission to register a political party that has raised the issue of southern and eastern Bhutanese as its agenda for election has indicated that the Bhutanese regime continues to suppress the voices for equality from southern and eastern districts.

It remains to be seen if the resettlement will end the problem or will it lead to a situation where resettled refugees will help the cause of their fellow countrymen inside Bhutan, for instance by helping armed rebellions, about which some Indian leaders have already expressed fears. It can only be hoped that Abraham's departure will not disrupt the process initiated for finding the durable solution.

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