Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fate Of Bhutanese Refugees Still Precarious

Source: The Rising Nepal
By Uttam Maharjan

With the announcement by the USA of its resettlement plan for the Bhutanese refugees, there have emerged two camps among the refugees: one in favour of the plan and the other in favour of repatriation to their homeland. The young refugees are in favour of resettling in the USA apparently because of their high expectations of better prospects there, whereas the elderly and old refugees are holding out for dignified repatriation to their homeland from a feeling of love for their homeland and patriotism.

These two camps are so poles apart in their choice that several scuffles, often violent, have ensued between them. In other words, the refugees have divided themselves into two polarizing ideologies, compromising the very unity, which is extremely imperative to fight the Druk regime, among them.

Viewed thus, the US offer of third-country resettlement has exasperated the fate of the refugees. The refugees have felt tired of living in seven sponsored camps in Morang and Jhapa districts of eastern Nepal. However, there are good omens that some refugees will be taken to the USA for resettlement this year (2008). This process may take several years before all the eligible and willing refugees are resettled in the USA and some other countries.

The refugee crisis has now protracted itself for around one and a half decades. During all these years, sixteen rounds of bilateral talks have been held between Nepal and Bhutan; nonetheless, there has been no obvious indication that the refugee crisis will get solved in the near future.

As a matter of fact, Bhutan is in no mood to solve the refugee deadlock. It used to express its commitment before the world community, especially when under duress, that it would break the refugee impasse but would refuse to hold talks under one pretence or the other when it came to the crunch. The last such pretence got exposed in December 2003 when the members of the joint verification team of Bhutan left Nepal for their country without so much as informing the Nepalese team. At the time, the verification of the Khudunabari camp had been over and preparations were being made for the repatriation home of the first batch of refugees.

Since then, the Nepal-Bhutan talks have stalled. Nepal had, however, tried to revive the talks after the December incident too but to no avail. Bhutan did not show any interest in the talks and Nepal too was embroiled in political instability and so could not give proper attention to the refugee imbroglio. Now, the US offer of third-country resettlement has upset the unity of the refugees, putting them at enmity with one another. Consequently, the solution to the long-festering refugee problem has gone haywire.

With a view to vehement opposition to the plan from a certain segment of the refugees themselves, the chance of the plan being implemented seems to have grown slim. It is alleged by some quarters that the US plan has been floated to cause disunity among the refugees and thus halt their repatriation to Bhutan. Going by the developments unfolding since the plan was announced, there seems to be some truth in the allegation.

Third-country resettlement is not bad per se. It could be a solution to the refugee crisis. But third-country resettlement is not the be-all and end-all. Not all refugees want to resettle in third countries. There may be still hundred-percenters who are willing to go back to their own homeland and contribute to its development in whatever way they can. Therefore, two or more options should always be open: third-county resettlement and dignified repatriation, for instance. Assimilation into the citizenry of Nepal could also be another option. But it could complicate the citizenship issue of the country. Moreover, it could not only encourage but also embolden Bhutan to forcibly expel other Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, locally known Lhotshampas, in the future.

Incidents of assault on the refugees wanting to resettle in the USA by the refugees bent on repatriation to Bhutan have surfaced in recent times. It is not a good thing. All the refugees have been facing the same problem. All of them have been cut off from their native land. Their properties in Bhutan have already been usurped by the Bhutanese government. They have been forced to live in camps, experiencing a variety of problems ranging from food, clothing and shelter to education and security. It follows that infighting among the refugees will benefit the Bhutanese government only. So, they must show a united front to fight back their common problem.

It may not be reiterated that Nepal cannot give shelter to the refugees forever. The refugees have been given shelter on humanitarian grounds only. The solution must be found out in one way or the other. Therefore, before implementing the third-country resettlement option, the option of repatriation must be in place. Going by the efforts made by Nepal to bilaterally solve the refugee problem for donkey's years, support and cooperation must be sought from the world community. In this regard, the involvement of India in untying the refugee knot is highly forthcoming as India has special relations with Bhutan. The country looks after the defence and foreign policy of Bhutan. It is also the first country of asylum for the refugees. The refugees were living in India after forcible expulsion from Bhutan. The Indian government then dumped them in trucks on the eastern border of Nepal.

With all the developments of the refugee imbroglio going on for the last seventeen years, it has been clear that bilateralism cannot work wonders to solve the refugee problem once and for all. What is required is multilateralism, where help is forthcoming from the world community to thrash out the problem.

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