Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nepal’s Generosity To Refugees

Source: Rising Nepal

By Hira Bahadur Thapa

Although the Government of Nepal has not yet acceded to the 1951 UN Convention on Status of Refugees and its subsequent Protocol, it has been quite generous to the refugees from whichever country they are from. There are glaring examples to prove Nepal’s generous behaviour meted out to the refugees. The simple reason why Nepal treats the refugees so kindly is nothing but purely humanitarian. It knows that there is no legal obligation on its part to provide humanitarian care like food and shelter to refugees as it is not a party to the refugees-related international convention. Its position on the current convention on refugees is not a factor deciding the type of treatment the refugees should be given. This is why we have hosted not only refugees from China who entered Nepal a long time ago but also Bhutanese refugees who have been sheltered since the early Nineties after being expelled from Bhutan.

Protracted negotiation
No other negotiations have been more protracted than that of the Bhutanese refugees who were compelled to leave their homeland by their government. About 100,000 of them have been in Nepal since 1991. The host government’s tireless efforts to repatriate them to their place of origin have borne no fruit. In the course of the last almost 18 years, Nepal has been engaged with all sincerity in finding a negotiated and durable solution to the vexed issue of the refugees from Bhutan. Unless there is reciprocal flexibility from the other side, it is near impossible to bring about an acceptable solution to the problem of refugees. While Nepal could have prevented the inflow of the Bhutanese refugees once they started to cross into our territory, the then government decided to let them enter only on the grounds of humanitarian concerns.

The reluctance of the country of origin of the Bhutanese refugees to be serious in taking their citizens back was clearly visible in the approach of the concerned government to the many rounds of negotiations held so far. There were as many as 15 rounds of ministerial level negotiations between Nepal and Bhutan. At each stage of the negotiations, the Bhutanese side hardly presented a flexible position, which very much obstructed the progress, especially in the repatriation of the refugees. As talks seemed no where to a satisfactory conclusion, members of the international community floated the idea of resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees in some of the western countries, including Australia. This option of third country resettlement is undoubtedly less than a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem. The most durable solution of the problem lies in the repatriation of the refugees to their own country.

The growing frustration among the Bhutanese refugees for having been forced to stay in the country of asylum for long years and not seeing any rays of hope to go back to their motherland must have led them to voluntarily accept the option of third country settlement. The host government is too heavily burdened with the sheltering of now more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees. They have been staying in camps in eastern Nepal for more than a decade-and-a-half. Under such unavoidable circumstances, the Nepal government, once approached by all the members of the donor community for giving consent to the solution of the refugee problem through third country settlement, gave its nod in view of the welfare of the refugees.

Nepal has accepted this temporary solution not because it does not believe in repatriation as the only comprehensive resolution of the refugee problem. It has on the other hand agreed to the call of the international community and of those bilateral donors, in particular, with the conviction that resettlement may ease the burden on Nepal while the refugees also have a better quality of life if settled outside the country of asylum. The key point here is the voluntary decision of the refugees themselves to seek a better future in the developed countries of the west which are willing to get them resettled.

The United States of America has agreed to take the highest number of Bhutanese refugees. There are other countries like Norway, Denmark and Australia showing willingness to accept the Bhutanese refugees in their territories. The US has declared it will resettle as many as 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees in the country. The process of resettlement has begun, and so far a few hundred refugees have already left the refugee camps for the US. Some other countries are also preparing to take them. The US government is to complete the resettlement of 60,000 refugees in the next five years.

The option of third country resettlement can never be a durable solution to the complex problem of refugees. Despite this, the Nepal government, as a host, did not object to this with the understanding that members of the international community will continue exerting due pressure on the Bhutanese government to agree to take back its citizens.

The refugees in volunteering to go to a third country for resettlement in no way forfeit their right to repatriation. Nothing bars them from being repatriated to their country of origin even when they have been resettled. It behooves on the part of the countries resettling the refugees to impress upon the country of origin that it should not in any way get encouraged to force its citizens to flee their own country. To ensure this, the country that expelled its countrymen must be made to follow repatriation.

Urban refugees
What concerns a country like Nepal at the moment is that the government’s generosity to the refugees is being misused by some. One of the irrevocable evidences of this is the undesirable tendency on the part of some foreigners to use Nepal’s territory as a jumping ground to seek third country resettlement in the west. It is believed that there are some foreign nationals trying to be listed as urban refugees in Nepal who seem to take advantage of the liberal immigration policy of the government. There is no denying the fact that the concept of so-called urban refugees is completely unacceptable to the government of Nepal.

Certainly in the name of giving humanitarian consideration to the plight of genuine refugees, Nepal cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to such a problem. Against this background, the government should also be serious enough in dealing with the refugees who try to misuse their shelter by participating in political demonstrations, which unfortunately has attracted the attention of the western press.

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