Who stands with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal?
On 20 June it will be another World Refugee Day, another year in which we remember the world’s most forgotten eviction of a people from their homeland. Of the 100,000 Nepali-speaking people of Bhutan that the Druk regime forced out in the early 1990s, there are still 7,000 in two camps in Jhapa and Morang. The rest have been resettled in eight countries around the world.
The fate of the remaining refugees is a serious crisis because while the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has already warned it will be shutting down two remaining camps, the Government of Nepal has not advanced the option of long-pending repatriation. On the other side, the US government, which absorbed 96,000 Bhutanese refugees under a multilateral resettlement program, has already shut the door to further admissions.
Although a majority of the just over 113,000 Bhutanese refugees opted for third-country resettlement, some among those remaining and their leaders, including exile-based political parties, continue to call for repatriation to Bhutan, but to no avail. If nothing changes, those refugees will prefer to stay in the camps.
Yet, if UNHCR pulls out, a humanitarian crisis is likely to endanger the lives of hundreds of children and elderly refugees. Many among those longing for repatriation are the most vulnerable -- aged and illiterate individuals who need support.
Thimphu’s strategy is to convince Kathmandu to absorb the remaining refugees permanently. Irrespective of Bhutan’s approach, UNHCR must actively and continuously promote the repatriation option.
With over 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, we understand that the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations want to shift their focus to other more needy refugees elsewhere in the world. We believe that it will be wrong for UNHCR to stop assisting Bhutanese refugees remaining in Nepal.
Despite 16 rounds of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan that last nearly 20 years, Thimphu prevailed with its stance of not taking back any of the 100,000 ethnic Nepalis and Sharchops it forcibly expelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bilateral talks abruptly stopped in 2004 following an alleged attack on the Bhutanese Joint Verification Team at Khudunabari Camp, and no promising signs of resumption have been seen since.
Given the common ancestral heritage between the remaining refugees and Nepal it might sound like the ideal solution for them to assimilate locally, but in reality it could be a big political blunder because an additional 80,000 ethnic Nepalis currently living in Bhutan and denied citizenship might be subject to a second forced exodus.
To be fair, it is equally possible that some of those left behind in the refugee camps will be happy to assimilate in Nepal, as they have already lived there for three decades -- enough time to feel a sense of belonging. If doing so would ensure that Bhutan will not evict more refugees, perhaps the Government of Nepal should honour these individuals’ wishes. It would be painful for the world to see the refugees living in limbo in the camps instead of being repatriated or locally settled.
India, which keeps Bhutan under its armpit, and the US, which absorbed the majority of the refugees, should start to pressure Thimphu to unlock the repatriation option so justice is served. It is the ethical and moral responsibility of these countries, as well as Nepal and the seven other western countries that resettled refugees, to advocate for the rights of those remaining. Resettlement was introduced as a humanitarian solution, not a permanent one.
Bhutan has no choice but to repatriate refugees while providing restitution for their property in Bhutan. It should also introduce a bill allowing political parties in exile to register for elections. If repatriation happens, which it must somehow, Bhutan should also allow resettled former refugees to travel to their country of origin. The current policy restricts them, even if they apply for a tourist visa. In the long run, this will boost the country’s growth.
While the refugees in eastern Nepal await repatriation, we hope the UNHCR will not shirk from its responsibility and that other stakeholders will increase pressure on the Bhutanese government for the dignified return of the Bhutan nationals. At the very least, repatriation will be a victory for the Bhutanese against their country’s ethnic-cleansing policy.
Bhuwan Gautam and T P Mishra are both former refugees from Bhutan now settled in the United States. Gautam is a graduate of Westfield State University in public administration, and Mishra an international studies graduate from University of North Carolina and executive director at Bhutan Media Society.