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BHUTAN: Forward movement in the "Refugee problem?" - Update 28.


Note No. 177                        13.02.2003

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan 

Reports from Nepal give the impression that both Nepal and Bhutan are moving forward in their efforts to come to an agreement on the vexed question of refugees.

It all started with the mass relay fast at Khudanabari camp on 7th January, the camp where the joint verification team completed its work a year ago and both countries were dragging their feet to complete the categorisation process or announce the results. The foreign minister of Nepal made a four day visit to Bhutan followed by a return visit of the Foreign minister of Bhutan to participate in the long pending 12th round of Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC). Hopeful and encouraging comments have emanated from the officials and others from Nepal that a break through is likely!

We are unwilling to share this optimism and it is to be hoped that the refugees of all the camps who have joined in this mass protest would wait till something tangible is achieved. There have been promises and promises galore as before, but no concrete results have yet emerged.

We have seen this before and have also seen the hurdles and traps laid by the Bhutan government to drag the issue indefinitely. One may recall that Mrs. Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees visited Bhutan in the last week of April and the first week of May 2000, and after holding talks with both Bhutan and Nepal, announced during the visit to the Refugee camps that the "Bhutanese officials had urged her to convey the message that they were ready to take back home the refugees." There was an added promise from her side. She said " I pledge that UNHCR will take every effort to return you." (Update 11) It is two years and nine months since the Bhutanese officials made that promise and nothing has happened.

It is not surprising that the protest movement of the refugees has gathered momentum. Fed up with the deliberate delay in solving the issue, the refugees are now determined to focus international attention to their plight.. Some of the steps taken by them and other well wishers are-

* Showing solidarity to the protesters, some well meaning human rights activists, media persons and retired foreign ministry officials of Nepal have been visiting the camps. Members of the BRRSG ( Bhutanese refugees return support Group) headed be Shailendra Kumar Upadhyaya, former foreign minister appealed to the foreign donor agencies to stop aid to Bhutan until the refugee problem is solved. A three-member team of the group visited India and met the Indian foreign minister on Feb. 10. They also met the Austrian Swiss Ambassadors (main donors other than Denmark and Japan) in New Delhi. The team is expected to go to Geneva on the eve of the round table conference of donor countries for aid to Bhutan (Feb. 18-19) to convince the donors that the refugee issue is basically one that relates to gross violation of human rights and no aid should be considered before the problem is solved. The team will be joined by other expatriates stationed in Europe.

* Representatives of the refugees met Kathmandu-based diplomats from Denmark and Japan and presented a petition signed by the refugee families of Khudanabari camp where the verification had been completed one year ago. They pressed that the donor meeting to be held in Geneva should discuss the refugee problem and press the Bhutan government to protect and promote human rights. The petition also opposed categorisation of refugees into four groups as there could be only two, namely Bhutanese and non Bhutanese.

* The refugees in all the six camps have decided to join on a hunger strike in solidarity with those undergoing fast in Khudanabari camp from February 14, on the eve of the forthcoming Geneva conference.

One direct result of the mass relay fast has been that both Nepal and Bhutan have been forced to expedite the verification process which had been stalled for more than a year. The foreign min ister of Nepal, Narendra Bikram Shah visited Thimpu  to discuss the refugees’ issue. He met prime minister Dorji and had an audience with the King. Though the informal visit was termed as a part of regular consultations between the two countries, the real reason was to convene the long overdue 12th round of joint ministerial committee meeting and move ahead with the verification process due to pressure from the refugees themselves.

The Nepalese Foreign Secretary conceded officially after the visit that among those surveyed in the Khudanabari camp ninety percent of them had valid documents proving their Bhutanese citizenship.

On Feb.4, a four-member team from Bhutan led by Foreign minister Jigme Y. Thinley arrived in Kathmandu to take part in the joint committee meeting starting the next day. The two sides declared that they have "harmonised" their positions with regard to the four categories and that the next meeting 13th round will take place in Thimpu on March 24. There was also a promise that the verification process will continue and that at the next meeting,  the details of verification made in the Khudanabari camp will be made known. Though there was no official statement, some indication has been given that Bhutan may show some "flexibility" with regard to category II of the refugees-, i.e., those who have voluntarily signed the migration forms and left the country.

We have said before that the refugees were made to sign voluntary migration forms under coercion and it should be clear to anyone that no person however poor he or she could be, would voluntarily renounce the citizenship and become a "stateless" person in another country. What Bhutan has done is morally and legally wrong and its action will not stand scrutiny in any court of law.

In the statements made by both countries after the 12th meeting, expressions like categorisation, harmonisation, verification etc have been freely used. In the past, these terms have been used more as tools by Bhutan to delay the whole process of repatriation of the refugees. It is hoped that pending further verification, the case of those 12000 and odd members whose documents have been verified will be first disposed of. The test of the sincerity of Bhutan lies in whether it would agree to take those citizens who were forcibly evicted. Rest would be easy.

The refugees are mobilised now. There will be pressure from all quarters to give up the fast on the ground that "progress" is being made. The officer in charge of UNHCR in Nepal has already appealed to the refugees to suspend the strike as a "major breakthrough has been made." The approach should be one of "wait and see’ and continue the momentum.