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The Bhutanese refugees’ dilemma: resettlement or repatriation?

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The long-awaited resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal has begun as the Nepal Government has permitted them to choose a third country for resettlement. The first group of refugees is expected to leave Nepal by January 2008.

(Bangkok, 8 November 2007) The process of resettlement for Bhutanese refugees living in eastern Nepal has begun following the government’s permission to allow refugees to choose a third country of their choice, subject to the country’s acceptance.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided information about adaptation in third countries to the Bhutanese Refugees. The purpose of the campaign is to assist refugees to make informed decisions based on accurate information. The UNHCR has held meetings with refugee leaders and camp management committees to inform them of their options.

“UNHCR prefers to help refugees go back to their home countries when they can do so in safety and dignity, however, in this case, the only option currently available is that for resettlement in a third country for those refugees who wish to make this choice”, said Nepal’s UNHCR representative Abraham Abraham.

According to UNHCR, many Bhutanese refugees have expressed their desire to return to their homeland. They left Bhutan when the government expelled Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali-origin in 1991. The policy resulted in the loss of one-sixth of the country's population. Abraham emphasised that “resettlement to a third country does not in any way preclude the right of refugees to return to Bhutan”1.

Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps administered by the UNHCR in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal. According to a population census conducted by the UNHCR and Nepal’s Home Ministry in refugee camps this year, the population of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal amounted to 160,000.

FORUM-ASIA has submitted a letter to the Nepali government in June this year, urging them to cooperate with countries over the issues of resettlement of Bhutanese refugees. The US has announced that the country will resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees, and even more if required. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also expressed their desire to accept them. On arrival in the resettlement country, the refugees will have legal permanent residence, including the possibility for becoming citizens of that country if they desire.

In response to the resettlement issue, US Assistant Secretary of Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey, said during her recent visit to Nepal that the first batch of Bhutanese refugees would arrive in the US by January 2008.  Once accepted for resettlement, the refugees will undergo cultural orientation organised by International Organisation of Migration and the resettlement countries to prepare them for their new life”2.

 Despite several meetings between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to resolve the refugee crisis over the past 16 years, the Bhutanese government has not permitted a single refugee to return home. Local integration, too, has been impossible as refugees were denied travel documents by the Nepali government and those who risked doing so suffered serious consequences.

For example, three young Bhutanese refugees were killed in May this year by Nepal’s armed police force, as they tried to cross the Indian border. Those who had been able to acquire legal citizenship in Nepal did so through marriage or by providing evidence that they were family members of Nepali citizens. Nepal has yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention although it has ratified the UN Convention against Torture, which includes protection of refugees.

With neither the possibility of repatriation nor local integration, the only realistic solution for the majority of refugees seems to be the idea of a third country resettlement.

However, refugees in the camps were divided over the issue:  while many welcomed the opportunity to begin new lives in other countries, a group of politically active refugees opposed the resettlement plan, saying that repatriation to Bhutan was the only acceptable solution.


1 Nepalnews, Process for third country resettlement of Bhutanese refugees begins
2 Nepalnews, US Asst Secy to visit Nepal to gear up resettlement of Bhutanese refugees