Prospects and Retrospect of Resettling Bhutanese Refugees

This month, it has been a haste schedule for both Bhutanese refugees and their protecting guardian UNHCR chief in Nepal Abraham ABRAHAM but with two different objectives.

Bhutanese refugees are busy expressing their interest and giving interviews to government representatives from the US and the Australia temporarily based in Damak for resettlement in third countries while back in Kathmandu, Abraham is having a busy schedule to taking final farewell salutes from friends with whom he worked in Nepal for the last five years.

Abraham, who took decisive and bold steps towards resettling Bhutanese refugees in third countries seeing years of efforts for repatriation failed, is leaving Nepal for Canada more than a month ahead of Bhutanese refugees leaving to start their new life in western countries.

Talking to NewsBlaze at the end of his tenure in Nepal, Abraham expressed hope that his dream of finding a solution to the long protracted Bhutanese refugee problem will come true in his absence as well.

On Sunday evening at Hotel Soaltee during his farewell party, Abraham in his most humble tone wished the top refugee human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal for early repatriation of Bhutanese refugees to their land and enjoying equality at par with other citizens even if at this hour the refugees are resettled in other countries.

The two leaders, talked in grim faces, separated with no agreement on one crucial issue: that Rizal has being requesting the UNHCR, Nepal and the resettling countries to make arrangement to allow one member from a family for resettlement in view that fight for democracy, human rights and equality in Bhutan will live.

But Abraham argues this won’t be done. He repeated that individual refugee has the right to choose his future but to keep UNHCR from being criticised for splitting the family, Abraham stressed that UNHCR stands firm to its decision not to allow a family being split.

The process has moved ahead as planned by the UNHCR, to which the resettling countries have agreed.

To accelerate the resettlement process and protecting the refugees willing to be resettled from being assaulted by the communist cadres, the Nepal government has deployed security personnel in all camps on the request of the UNHCR. Alleging that the security personnel have been intimidating and harassing those refugees who advocate repatriation, Bhutan People’s Party recently demanded removal of the security posts.

As usual, Abraham denied any straight comments on the demands that political parties put on but diverted his statement to mention that UNHCR is also mandated to find solution of the refugee crisis if host country and the country generating refugees fail to reach an agreement.

Soon the UNHCR started distributing forms to refugees to express their willingness for resettlement, UNHCR office in Kathamndu and contact points in all camps saw long queues of refugee filling the forms. But as interviews in Damak started, the refugees looked confusing on how the UNHCR selects people for interviews.

“It is first come first served. We have no reason to discriminate any refugees,” Abraham said.

The resettling countries interview refugees on the basis of the applications and family details forwarded by the UNHCR. The US government team has just completed its first round of interviews and the Australian team has come in from Sunday. Canada has informed the UN refugee agency they will begin the process from 2009 while other countries who had earlier expressed interest in resettling the refugees, such as Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand are yet to say anything about the number of refugees they would resettle and the time to begin.

The major concern of the refugee leaders is the future of those refugees who would not be resettled. There are hints from Indian leaders in recent months that Bhutan might agree on repatriation once the population of the refugee becomes smaller. These statements are in line with the statement of Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee in June this year saying repatriation of over 100,000 refugees to their homeland will cause ‘demographic imbalance’ in Bhutan.

Having found no reason to go against the resettlement process, the refugee leaders have accelerated their advocacy campaigns among Indian leaders. In November, a number of senior journalists and parliamentarians in India during a seminar in New Delhi said they will soon visit Thimphu to push Bhutanese authority to allow the refugees to cast votes in the upcoming elections and their early repatriation to avoid a violent future in north-east India.

During an interview with Nepal FM Saranarthi Sarokar on Saturday, a weekly programme run by the refugees, a refugee leader Jagir Lama said they are now in a mood to reorganise their strategies of struggle keeping in view the resettlement process.

Under these circumstances, resettlement debates have overshadowed the repatriation agenda. With a vague future and without an identity and nationality, a group of refugees will fly to the US in January.

But Abraham claims, prospects of repatriation to their homeland will not perish even after resettlement. “Refugees are guaranteed the right to return once the environment is conducive in their country. At this time, the conditions are not conducive neither for repatriation nor to stay in camps,” he adds.

The resettling countries are yet to publicly to state that they guarantee repatriation if the refugees wish in future. However, this will largely be determined by the future political developments in Bhutan. Until now, hints from inside Bhutan are discouraging.

The rejection by Bhutan’s election commission to register a political party that has raised the issue of southern and eastern Bhutanese as its agenda for election has hinted that the Bhutanese government continue to suppress the voices calling for equality from southern and eastern districts.

Results are yet to see if the resettlement will end the problem for all time. Some Indian leaders fear that money earned in western countries could be used for instigating armed rebellion in Bhutan.

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 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.