Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Options for refugees

Source: The Kathmandu Post

By Vidhyapati Mishra

When bilateral approaches in resolving Bhutanese refugee crisis failed, a group of countries came forward with the Third Country Resettlement Plan (TCRP). The United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway represent the core-group headed by the United States. These countries vow that the resettlement offer is totally a voluntary and humanitarian.

A press statement issued by the US Embassy on January 16 highlighted that each refugee is entitled to make his or her own choice, in an atmosphere free from threats and intimidation. This shows that the third country resettlement plan is voluntary. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Ellen R Sauerbrey during her visit to refugee camps last November made similar comments at UNHCR-administered Goldhap and Beldangi-I camps. In her speech, she stressed that the TCRP was 'voluntary' and no one could force individual refugee to adopt it.

During Sauerbrey visit to Goldhap camp, a few interesting things happened. She delivered her speech to refugees gathered there and left the stage telling representatives from the UNHCR, International Organization for Migration and the United States would answer all queries related to the TCRP. During the question-answer session, the scene was quite funny. Refugees raised several questions to quench their curiosity but answers given by the delegates made refugees crake jokes out of them. The situation pointed that refugees lack enough information on the TCRP. They have several questions and want the authority concerned to clarify them.

Rumors on TCRP
It is not that all refugees understand what delegates of UNHCR or core-group communicate. There are elderly who regard that the TCRP to the US or elsewhere is like a human going to the Moon from the Earth. Youth have some reliable information but they want more specifically based on health, education and employment in the host country. In this regard, information provided to the general mass is insufficient. Even means of information on the TCRP is inaccessible to everyone at the camp.

The elderly and illiterate refugees raise several questions to literate ones or refugees staying outside the camps. What can they expect from those who also lack detail information on this issue? The responses to such questions have made them more confused when answers differ from one person to another. When these sorts of details are passed to a third person, many things go added or subtracted. Finally, it becomes a source of confusion and rumor.

Country selection
The refugees are not informed on what basis a family or individual refugee is chosen. When country selection is granted to refugees, there are questions on voluntary resettlement. The questions refugees have on the TCRP are related to the host countries. Therefore, refugees anticipate clarifications from agents of concerned country but not probably from the staff of UNHCR or of International Organization of Migration.

Refugees attending interviews are also confused. Some are called to the UNHCR and others to International Organization of Migration, Norway or Australia desks. Different agents interview even refugees having same case or condition of vulnerability. Interviewees, who come to the UNHCR or International organization of Migration, raise several questions on the TCRP. However, several interviewees are simply told that a particular host country taking them will answer their questions.

If qualified for resettling country's interview, refugees will probably raise questions but when conditions are unsatisfactory, there is a chance of withdrawing applications. Nevertheless, UNHCR's booklet on the TCRP clearly states that applicants withdrawing their processing are not granted the TCRP in the future. This is more complex as it creates fear on voluntary processing for the resettlement plan.

Employment opportunities
Sauerbrey informed refugees that selection of refugees wishing to adopt the TCRP in the US is not determined by age, sex, skill or education of individual refugee. However, the US has not informed the refugees about the system of employment once the refugees reach there.

The US offers three types of employment opportunities for the refugees. First is the entry-level-job which requires little skill or experience such as hotel housekeeper, stewards and factory workers. Welcome to the United States, a guidebook for refugees writes that these jobs do not require a high level English and many refugees willing to resettle in the US find these jobs comfortable. Second is the skilled-labor-job requiring higher education or certain level of skill. But these kinds of jobs require licensing or membership of a union. The guidebook has clearly mentioned that licenses possessed by the refugees in the host country are not accepted without the US certification. The third type is professional job, which needs college degree with advanced English and high level of skills in the field.

Refugees have no idea as to what type of jobs they get in the host country. If they are clearly mentioned about the type of jobs, hourly wages, house rents and the like they can create a true judgment in their hearsays. Students who have acquired various certifications and academic degrees in Nepal have a fear that their documents will turn into showpieces.

Travel loan
The next confusion on the TCRP is travel loan. Different countries have different schemes and facilities to the refugees. From the very beginning, the US has been stating that refugees will have to repay the travel cost.

The US sources claim that the travel loan paid by the refugees goes into a fund that helps other refugees travel to the US. The US system requires that family members over 18 years of age receive such a loan. Before a refugee travels to the US, he will sign a paper called a promissory note, promising to repay the loan. A few months after a refugee arrives in the US, he must start repaying travel loan on a monthly basis and must complete in maximum three years. However, refugees are not informed of the exact figure of travel loan. Further, what happens to the loan if refugees do not get employment in the US is not clarified.

US military service
Several young refugees fear that they need to join the US military services. The US system asks male refugees over 18 and below 25 to register with the selective service. The selective service is a government agency that can call individuals for military service, usually at the time of war and all members of US military are volunteers at present. The US has been telling that this is a voluntary scheme to refugees. Nevertheless, there is hidden secret that people who do not register might find it difficult to get permanent residency and citizenship if they wish to make the US their permanent home.

Thousands of Bhutanese, who fled their country for safety and security in the late 80s and early 90s also, filled up a so-called voluntary form, which described that they would never return to Bhutan or undergo rigorous imprisonment if they do so. That has become a great tool for the Druk regime and often it utters that the refugees left their country voluntarily. Again, after 17 years of unproductive stay in the camp another voluntary offer — the third county resettlement plan — is knocking doors of ramshackle huts.

(The writer is General Secretary of Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) Bhutan.)

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