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Bhutan questions identity of 107,000 refugees in Nepal

[Nepal] Young Bhutanese boys outside Nepal’s Khundunabari refugee camp in southeastern Jhapa district, home to an estimated 13,500 residents. There are an estimated 107,000 Bhutanese refugees in the Himalayan nation. [Date picture taken: 19/04/2007]
(David Swanson/IRIN)

As one of the world’s largest third-country resettlement processes started this week in Nepal, with over 10,000 Bhutanese refugees scheduled to be resettled in various Western countries by the end of 2008, Bhutan has disputed that all the refugees are in fact from Bhutan.

Sonam Tobgay, head of the policy division of the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry, told IRIN on 27 March: “It is… factually incorrect to term all the people in the camps [in eastern Nepal] Bhutanese. Bhutan cannot accept a blanket reference to all the people in the camps as being `refugees’ from Bhutan.”

According to Tobgay, Bhutan and Nepal - in talks going back since 1993 - have agreed that there are four categories of people in the camps, including non-Bhutanese people.

“The lack of a screening procedure when the camps were first established in 1991 allowed persons of all antecedents to congregate in the camps. The camps were opened by the government of Nepal, which sought UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] assistance in 1991, when there were only 304 people claiming to be Bhutanese refugees,” Tobgay said.

Tobgay said the problem of the people in the camps in eastern Nepal was not straightforward: “It is a highly complex issue with its genesis in illegal immigration, in a region marked by vast population movements, porous and open borders, poverty, environmental degradation and political instability.”

But he added: “Bhutan stands committed to finding a durable solution to the problem of the people in the camps in keeping with the agreements reached with the government of Nepal.”

As for the third country resettlement, Tobgay said Bhutan appreciated the offer by the USA and other countries to resettle people and believed this would ease the humanitarian problem.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Residents at the Sanischare refugee camp in southeastern Nepal

Heading for Arizona, USA

The first batch of some 100 refugees was heading for Arizona State, USA, this week, where they will be resettled after nearly 17 years of life in a refugee camp in Nepal.

The refugees - part of some 107,000 in seven camps in eastern Nepal - fled Bhutan during the early 1990s after enforcement of a citizenship act adopted there in 1985 made life intolerable for people of Nepalese ethnicity, according to various international human rights organisations.

According to the UNHCR’s The State of the World’s Refugees 2006 report, in 1985 the Bhutanese government established new eligibility requirements for citizenship that effectively disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights.

In addition, the government introduced measures to enforce rigidly the Druk (Druk are the Buddhist majority of Bhutan) dress code and forbid the use of Nepali in the educational curriculum. Special permission was required for admission to schools and to sell cash crops, the UNHCR report said.

Around 200 refugees will be resettled by the end of March. Over 10,000 others would also leave the camps by the end of 2008 and be resettled in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, said UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis.

“A total of 25,000 refugees have registered,” said Pagonis in a press statement in Geneva.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
A mother assists her daughter to be photographed during the Bhutanese refugee registration effort undertaken by UNHCR and the governent of Nepal at the Khundunabari refugee camp in southeastern Jhapa district.

Selection process

Some refugees have complained there has been an unclear process of selecting refugee families for interview. However, the UNHCR said refugees would be called for interview on a first-come-first-served basis, according to the dates of their applications.

However, not all the refugees have registered for resettlement as many are still waiting to see how the resettlement takes place, while a large number are hoping to be repatriated by the Bhutanese government, according to refugee leaders.

The refugees are frustrated by a lack of change in their lives after 15 rounds of unsuccessful talks between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and many are now opting for third-country resettlement in a desperate bid to improve their lot, according to refugee activists in Kathmandu.

The refugees told IRIN they continued to face financial hardship, unemployment, depression and over-dependence on humanitarian aid.

“There is so much frustration among refugees that they have started to fight between themselves,” said a refugee activist, requesting not to be named. He said there was conflict due to disagreements over opting for resettlement or repatriation.

UN report

A report by the UN independent expert on minority issues (A/HRC/7/23) released in February 2008 said: "Participants in the expert consultation [in December 2007] described how in 1985, the citizenship law of Bhutan stripped an estimated 100,000 individuals of ethnic Nepali origin of their citizenship rights, a factor leading to their forced expulsion from the country.”

More on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
 Thousands of Bhutanese refugees ready to resettle in third countries
 Bhutanese refugee children want new lives
 Some 60,000 Bhutanese refugees could settle in USA “soon”
 UNHCR in new move on Bhutanese refugees
 The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India - HRW

“According to the participants, the Bhutanese of Nepali ethnic origin are allegedly prevented from returning to their own country, denied the right to a nationality in their country of residence and are de facto stateless. Those remaining in Bhutan are also denied citizenship and consequently continue to live in a precarious legal limbo and fear similar expulsion from the country," the report said.

Doma Tshering, Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of Bhutan to the UN, said Bhutan was “disappointed with the selective and simplistic reproduction in the report of the Independent Expert of assertions that emerged during the so-called Expert Consultations of December 2007, of which the Royal Government was neither aware, nor invited to participate in. References to Bhutan contained in paragraph 58 of that report were regrettably rife with factual inaccuracies and fell far short of the minimum standard of objectivity expected of United Nations reports,” she said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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