Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India "

An extract from a latest report by New York based Human Rights Watch . The following is the conclusion from the report:

The U.S. offer to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees is the first significant movement in 15 years toward resolving one of the world’s most intractable refugeesituations. But to be truly effective this offer cannot operate in isolation. The U.S.resettlement offer should be a catalyst for a comprehensive solution to theBhutanese refugee crisis.247 This requires a three-pronged strategy.

First, given that resettlement is likely to be the only feasible durable solution for themajority of the refugees at the present time, countries other than the U.S. should joinin a coordinated effort to maximize the total number of resettlement places availablefor this refugee population. In addition to more than 100,000 refugees living in thecamps in eastern Nepal, as many as 15,000 unregistered Bhutanese refugees liveoutside the camps in Nepal and another 30,000 live in India. Thus if the U.S. offer toresettle 60,000 stands alone and neither repatriation nor local integration becomeviable options, the majority of refugees will remain without durable solutions.While the government of Nepal should continue to demand that the government of Bhutan honor its obligation to permit refugee repatriation, Nepal should not makecooperation with resettlement contingent on the outcome of further rounds ofbilateral talks with Bhutan.248 As one refugee said, “The conclusion [of a new round of bilateral talks] might be that the government of Bhutan prolongs our refugee lifeby 15 or 20 years, by restarting the verification process. By that time our generationwill be ruined totally.”249

Nepal should work together with the resettlement countries to ensure that thoseBhutanese refugees in its territory who are offered resettlement places are issuedexit permits without delay.250 Nepal must respect refugees’ right to leave the country,in accordance with article 12(2) of the ICCPR, which provides: “Everyone shall be freeto leave any country, including his own.”251

Second, refugees need a real alternative in the form of local integration, includingguarantees of freedom of movement and the right to seek a livelihood in Nepal.Those refugees who express a preference for local integration over resettlementshould also be given the possibility to acquire Nepalese citizenship.252For the resettlement program to be truly voluntary, refugees need genuine choiceswhether to accept the offer of resettlement. Nepal’s willingness to integrate refugees would give the refugees real options. A refugee said, “I am fearful about the future. Ifthey [resettlement countries] will not take us, maybe we are in the street here inNepal or in India, maybe somewhere else, begging for food.”253

Third, the United States and other resettle countries should redouble their efforts toconvince Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate to do so under conditionsthat are compatible with human rights law. The possibility, now, that the majority ofBhutanese refugees currently in Nepal will opt for durable solutions other thanrepatriation ought to make it that much easier for Bhutan to accept repatriation, andfor resettlement countries to press Bhutan for a genuinely comprehensive solutionthat utilizes all three durable solutions to resolve this protracted refugee situation.All relevant parties should emphasize to the refugees and the government of Bhutanalike that the options of local integration and third-country resettlement do notextinguish refugees’ right to return. Rather, refugees are offered these options onhumanitarian grounds, to allow them to end their refugee status. Refugees’ interimchoices do not deprive them of their right to return to Bhutan. Equally, no offer of adurable solution, be it local integration in Nepal or resettlement to a third country,extinguishes Bhutan’s obligations under international law to respect the refugees’right to return to Bhutan. Moreover, the options of local integration and third-countryresettlement do not extinguish refugees’ right to have restored to them any housing,land, or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived, and to becompensated for any housing, land, or property that cannot be restored to them.254To diffuse the current tensions in the camps between the proponents and opponentsof resettlement, the U.S. and other resettlement countries should emphasize that thedichotomy between resettlement and the right to return is a false one. A member ofthe Bhutanese Refugees Durable Solutions Coordination Committee observed:

Resettlement is not an option that is opposed to repatriation. We canlobby from other countries for change in Bhutan. If people areresettled to countries that respect human rights, they can exercisetheir right to go back. Moreover, there is nothing sure about beingtaken back to Bhutan from the camps in Nepal.

The resettlement countries should present the refugees with a clear message thattheir offer of resettlement is not intended to undermine the efforts to realizerefugees’ right to return to their own country. To enforce this message theresettlement countries should bring pressure to bear on the government of Bhutan torespect and protect the fundamental human rights of the remaining ethnic Nepalis inBhutan, and to allow those refugees who wish to repatriate to exercise their right toreturn. A young refugee man said:

The U.S. offer may be welcome to many of the refugees. People willbegin to experience a new life. But America should also work withequal force to enable those refugees who want to go back to repatriate.I hope that the U.S. will keep an eye on Bhutan, and that Bhutancomes in the frontline with respect to democracy and human rights.

Refugees voiced to Human Rights Watch persistent fears that Bhutan might use theresettlement offer as a pretext to force its remaining ethnic Nepali citizens to leavethe country. One refugee said, “Government officials in villages are saying toLhotshampas, ‘Your relatives are going to America, now is the right time to meetthem.’ So they are encouraging people to leave, saying, ‘This is your goldenopportunity.’”257 Another refugee said, “Subdivision officers are going toLhotshampas, saying to them, ‘Your relatives are going to America, why are you stillhere?’”258 Yet another refugee said:

The U.S. offer should not be an encouragement for the Bhutangovernment to evict more people. The U.S. and other countries shouldtalk to Bhutan that these people in Bhutan should not be evicted.These conditions should be there, otherwise Bhutan will evict morepeople. The purpose of the [2005] Bhutan census is to clear thesouthern Bhutanese away. Our concern is that our relatives in Bhutanshould not be made to suffer like us.

The international community, and in particular the U.S. and other resettlementcountries, and those countries who maintain diplomatic relations with Bhutan, mustput real pressure on the government of Bhutan to ensure respect for the rights ofBhutan’s ethnic Nepali population on a non-discriminatory basis, and in particular toensure that all ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan are protected from arbitrary denationalization.

To read the full report, please go here.

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