Future of Bhutanese Refugees is a Shell Game

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While Bhutanese refugees want to go back to their country after nearly two decades of exiled life in Nepal, the international community, especially the US, Canada backed by the UN refugee agency, have lately been repeatedly advocating for taking these ill-fated people to mesmerised western society.

In her recent address to the annual meeting of the UNHCR in Geneva, US assistant secretary of state for refugee affairs Ellen Sauerbrey said her country is ready to absorb some 60,000 of 106,000 Bhutanese refugees within the next 3-4 years if the Nepal government gives a green signal.

The refugee community, primarily leaders, have strongly criticised the stand of the UNHCR and Nepal government to forgo the decision to resettle them in some strange land, while still a few young refugee people enthusiastically wait their dreams to see Europe and America come true.

When UNHCR deputy commissioner Hopkins said a few months back that Nepal granted transit visas to 16 individual vulnerable refugees to be settled in the US and Canada, there were irksome responses from the refugee community. Nepal’s government even had to use force to stop refugees from demonstrating, that obstructed highways near to UNHCR camps in eastern Nepal for several hours daily.

Deputy prime minister of Nepal K. P. Oli’s remark on refugees during his address to US session also placed Nepal in a safe place that it is not responsible to determine where these people should be resettled. The stand of the present Nepalese government is to say it is providing shelter to the Bhutanese refugees on humanitarian grounds but has no mandated responsibility to finalise the issue of Bhutanese refugees since this is the tension between the Bhutan government and its people, has sparked hope among the refugee community to get help from the international community for repatriation. Unfortunately, the international community thinks otherwise.

Critics say India has a major role in instigating the international community to settle these refugees in western countries. India fears that unless the crisis is addressed in a shorter period of time, communist insurgents many take root in Bhutan, which will cause tension for India. The rise of communist insurgents will add one more underground war group in northeast India, strengthening the network of rebellions, that has already become burdensome to India.

Though US said it can absorb up to 60,000 refugees and hinted that Canada and Australia have agreed to take some, there hasn’t been any clear future for the remaining refugees. Analysts say since the Bhutanese king has admitted some 33 percent of the refugees in Nepal as original Bhutanese, they would be repatriated. But scant hopes rest on Bhutan taking these people because the regime had time and again been economical with the truth to the international community in regard to the refugee issue.

The verification of the joint team of Nepal and Bhutan in one of the camps in Jhapa proved that over 70 percent of refugees belonged to Bhutan, though Bhutan says many of them left the country willingly or by doing criminal acts. The commitments of the Bhutanese authority to end the crisis have been revoked after this result, unexpected for the regime.

Despite having known the refugees are Bhutanese, the US government has been saying that their initiation was motivated only by their interest to end the crisis. However, the US has not made it clear whether its initiation would end the crisis permanently. The US has also not made it clear whether the refugees would be given a permanent settlement status in US or accredited as refugees for temporary settlement until the environment in Bhutan is conducive for return.

The role of India is important. But it has never spoken. The silent politics of India on this issue is to gain support from the refugees as well in case they are returned. For years, India has ruled over Bhutan and it does not want its hands off once political change takes place there.

Giving shelter would be a humanitarian task but forcing the refugees to accept whatever is in hand would be against the international norms and rights. The first attempt of the international community should be to put pressure on Bhutan take its citizens and initiate settlement of the remaining population.

I. P. Adhikari is a Bhutanese journalist who writes about Bhutan and Nepal, and is a member of the Association of Press Freedom Activists-Bhutan. He founded Bhutan News Service. A former Bhutanese refugee, he was forced to leave Bhutan with his family in 1992.
in 2001, he started The Shangrila Sandesh, and in 2004 he and Vidhyapati Mishra started the Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) Bhutan. In 2007 they started Bhutan News Service. He worked in The Rising Nepal, The Himalayan Times, Nation Weekly and Nepalnews.com while living in Nepal as refugee.

Adhikari moved to Adelaide, South Australia under the resettlement program of the UNHCR for Bhutanese Refugees. There, he founded Yuba Sansar, a weekly Nepali-language radio program on Radio Adelaide.