- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

NEW DELHI — The complicated matter of Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal seems to be heading toward a solution after agreements were achieved during a two-day meeting of diplomats of the two countries Oct. 20-21 in Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital.

The outcome has given hope to about 100,000 people living in seven camps in eastern Nepal operated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. If implemented, the agreements could lead to repatriation of a large number of the refugees and settlement of the others in Nepal with grants of Nepalese citizenship.

The Bhutanese refugees, who are mostly of Nepalese descent, were displaced during the 1990s when the government, dominated by the majority Drukpa ethnic group, accused the Lothsampa (Nepali) minority of being illegal immigrants and tried to force them to use the language and dress of the Drukpas. Bhutan’s government says refugees left voluntarily but refugees assert they were driven out.

From the very beginning, Bhutan has been reluctant to take back these refugees. Among other things, it fears that the return of the refugees would change the demography of the country and Bhutan might lose its identity and independence as did nearby Sikkim, which opted for merger with India once the indigenous communities were outnumbered by Nepalese immigrants.

It also fears refugees because of their preference of multiparty democracy instead of a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, in recent times, left-wing Maoist extremists have established their presence among the ethnic Nepali community, making the Drukpa royalty more jittery.

The reluctance of Bhutan to accept the Lothsampa refugees was manifested in various policies it adopted during the negotiations. In April, Bhutan proposed keeping the repatriated refugees in camps for an initial period of two years. This proposal probably also had the tacit support of the royal Nepalese government.

However, the refugees, who did not want to stay in camps after being repatriated, rejected this proposal outright, insisting that the Bhutanese government issue them citizenship documents at the U.N.-run camps.

Bhutan’s disinterest in the refugees became further apparent in July, when politicians expressed apprehension at the possibility that these people might return. A number of them disagreed with some of the decisions of the Nepal-Bhutan joint ministerial committee (MJC) and reportedly put pressure on the government to provide acceptable justifications.

The UNHCR, which runs the refugee camps in Nepal, has been kept out of the verification process by both Nepal and Bhutan and was denied access by the Bhutanese government to potential areas of return. Realizing these constraints, the agency declared earlier that the UNHCR would limit itself to three tasks:

• Promoting projects to integrate refugees into Nepali society while phasing out its direct involvement with the camps.

• Supporting resettlement initiatives for vulnerable cases.

• Not encouraging refugees to return to Bhutan because of that government’s refusal to grant the UNHCR access in the country, but monitoring the situation to ensure that all returns are voluntary.

The issue of repatriation of refugees got more complicated when the Joint Verification Team (JVT) announced the results of verification of Khuduanbari camp and permitted only a small number of refugees to return. This was strongly protested by the refugees and 94 percent of them appealed. A number of international human rights organizations also condemned the verification process.

However, some dramatic developments took place during the 15th MJC on the refugee issue, and both sides agreed on several items. It is believed that Nepal’s seven-member Foreign Ministry team applied some pressure, but a desire on the part of Bhutanese to settle this issue also played a part.

The meeting produced some definite action to be taken. It decided that people in Category 1 (bona-fide Bhutanese who were forcefully evicted), Category 2 (Bhutanese who emigrated), and Category 4 (Bhutanese who committed criminal acts) would be repatriated or resettled according to the “harmonized position” of the two governments and the citizenship laws of the two countries. It further agreed that the JVT would review appeals made by the people in Category 3 (non-Bhutanese) by the end of January 2004. The family members of people with criminal records would not be charged or prosecuted on their return to Bhutan and those people in Category 2 who do not want to return to Bhutan will be allowed to apply for Nepali citizenship.

The remaining appeals by the people in Khuduanbari camp are to be decided by the JVT in the last week of this month. Once this process is complete, then repatriation would start from Khuduanbari camp and another camp at Sanischare would be taken up for verification. The terms and procedures for repatriation, reapplication and application for Bhutan and Nepal will be as prescribed by laws of the two countries.

However, the five leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Lutheran World Federation, Habitat International Coalition and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group — are still not satisfied by these developments.

They have again requested the donor countries to take steps so that a fair solution could be found to the long-standing crisis by full involvement of the international community. They say that the talks failed to clarify the conditions under which the refugees would be readmitted.

Despite these apprehensions, it appears that both Bhutan and Nepal are now keen to settle the refugee issue. These countries are at present grappling with other problems, which they think also demand their urgent attention. Nepal is busy dealing with the Maoist threat. On the other hand, Bhutan wants Indian terrorist groups operating from bases in that country to leave peacefully.

In addition, Bhutan’s polity is also under transition as it moves toward democracy.

Though six more camps remain to be verified, a broad policy outline seems to have emerged after the latest round of talks between the two countries. If this policy is implemented uniformly in the remaining camps, a long-standing problem of South Asia may find a solution.

Anand Kumar is a research associate at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.

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