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Refugee Problem's Internationalisation The Only Alternative


More than a decade of degrading exile has brought Bhutanese refugees humiliation, hopelessness, despair and loss of legal status to a point where they have now nothing to lose. They cannot be any more dispossessed than they are today.Nepal had earlier set three options: solution through bilateral talks, seeking Indian assistance, and internationalisation of the issue. Fifteen rounds of Nepal-Bhutan Ministerial Joint Committee talks have been held in the last eleven years, which did not yield any results. Refugees have been totally excluded from the so-called Nepal-Bhutan bilateral talks, created for their repatriation. The bilateral process has become a total failure. Nepal has done everything in its power to please Bhutan for a negotiated settlement, but it failed. Bhutan has not budged an inch from its its original stand.

Nepal has even offered integration of left-over refugees in Nepal, if Bhutan agreed to take back those refugees (Category I, II & IV of Khudunabri camp) it accepted as originating from Bhutan. Nepal even signed an agreement called ‘Agreed Position on the Four Categories (APFC)’ with Bhutan during the 14 round of talks in May 2003 in which it agreed to grant Nepalese citizenship to those people under category II who do not wish to return to Bhutan. Despite this magnanimous gesture, Bhutan showed no interest in taking back its citizens. Instead, Bhutanese officials gave the refugees in the camps outrageous terms and conditions for repatriation to discourage them from opting for voluntary repatriation. Nepal would then be obliged to grant them Nepalese citizenship under the agreement. For Bhutan the agreement holds good even today. How long can Nepal be fooled by Bhutan?

Bhutan is not only the closest ally, but a ‘strategic partner’ of India in the region. Thus, India is unable to exert any pressure. This was made amply clear during the Bhutanese king’s November visit to India. The refugee issue was not discussed in New Delhi. Bhutan has played India’s ‘goodwill’ for it against Nepal in all bilateral talks to its fullest benefit. The refugees very well understand the cordial Indo-Bhutan friendship and acknowledge that their problem is not India but their own tyrannical and despotic ruler. India has time and again insisted that Bhutanese refugee issue should be resolved bilaterally.

As India’s assistance is not available, Nepal should now opt for the third option — internationalisation of the issue. Internationalisation does not mean mere awareness of problems by the international community. It requires a lot of homework by the host country. The host country must officially present the issue to appropriate forums or powers to prevent Bhutan from continuing its ethnic cleansing policy and to minimise its own burden. The international community has tremendously commended Nepal for hosting Bhutanese as well as many refugees from other countries. Nepal should invite international community to find a durable solution of the refugee issue, otherwise it will be left alone to shoulder the entire burden.

Nepal made the biggest blunder by creating the official bilateral committee. There is hardly any international instance of the two governments (host and the evictor) entering into a contract for repatriation of the refugees. Refugees’ repatriation needs international glare and support. Instead of inviting Bhutan for talks, Nepal should have entrusted all responsibilities pertaining to Bhutanese refugees, including verification, repatriation and rehabilitation process in Bhutan, to UNHCR, as it does with Tibetan and other refugees in Nepal.

Had UNHCR been given full responsibility, the refugee issue would not have been as politicised as it is today. There are several millions of refugees worldwide. Millions have been repatriated through UNHCR’s initiative. Millions of Afghan refugees returned home under UNHCR’s watch. Repatriation is going on in Africa under UNHCR’s supervision. We have not heard of Afghanistan and Pakistan governments signing any contract for repatriation of Afghan refugees. Neither Burundi, Sudan or Chad government is directly involved in the repatriation of refugees. Then why does Nepal stick to the bilateral process?

UNHCR ostensibly decided to phase out its involvement in the refugee camps by the end of 2005, firstly, because it accepts the fact that there is no hope of refugees returning home through the clumsy bilateral process, and secondly, AFPC agreement of May 2003 has provisions for local integration. Thirdly, Nepal and Bhutan have deliberately excluded UNHCR from the verification, repatriation and rehabilitation process. It is natural for any UN agency to withdraw itself from a process in which the concerned governments do not value its expertise or involvement.

Nepal is concerned about its national interests, so are Bhutan and India. The refugees cannot remain hostage to the national interest ‘dilemma’ of the three for ever. Every individual needs a legal status (citizenship or resident status), in order to live a decent life, to get a job, advance a career, seek health facilities, educate children, which the refugees have lacked for last fourteen years. The refugees have no patience to remain in a state of perpetual statelessness.