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BHUTAN: Refugee Issue: Rijal goes to Geneva: Update 41


Note No. 243                        13.10.2004

by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

In a surprise move, the Nepal government issued a travel document to Tek Nath Rijal on "humanitarian grounds" on September 3, 2004, to enable him to travel to Geneva to be present for the 55th Executive Meeting of UNHCR.

His visit was organised by the Lutheran World Foundation and he is being accompanied by Ratan Gazmere, Chief co-ordinator of the Human rights associations of Bhutan.

Ever since his release, Rijal was avoiding a visit to the refugee camps as well as Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. His grouse was that on an earlier visit to Nepal, he was betrayed by the then Nepal government and he was summarily put in a plane and sent to Bhutan to undergo ten years of imprisonment.

Rijal relented however and made his way to Kathmandu but avoided the refugee camps for reasons not known. In Kathmandu for the last nine months Rijal was trying to obtain a travel document to go abroad to take up the issue of the refugees internationally. Until Sher Bahadur Deuba took over, the Nepal government took the stand that Rijal has to legitimise his presence in Nepal before any document could be issued. As laws go, Rijal could not have remained in Kathmandu without a valid travel document. But he was stubborn and did not apply for a refugee status for which he had to register himself.

It is not clear yet, on what basis Rijal has been provided with a travel document. Apparently he has not registered himself as a refugee, but it could be that he has been formally provided asylum by the Nepal government.

Has Nepal’s position hardened?

It looks that Nepal is making a "statement" in issuing the travel document- an issue that had been pending for many months. It is perhaps to show that besides its solidarity with the refugees, hardening of its stand vis a vis Bhutan on the refugee issue.

Prime Minister Deuba had mentioned privately that failure to solve the refugee crisis soon will lead to A. Radicalisation of the refugees and B. Internationalisation of the refugee issue itself.

By providing a travel document and letting him go to Geneva and other countries, Nepal is making it known that it is prepared to let the issue get internationalised though Deuba until two months ago was not for it!

Rijal did not visit the Refugee camps before departure:

It is unclear why Rijal did not visit the refugee camps in eastern Nepal. The media reports initially indicated that Rijal soon after obtaining the travel document would first visit the refugee camps before visiting Geneva. Reports now say that Rijal was denied permission to visit the refugee camps. But there are other reports to say that Rijal was only "advised" not to visit the camps and reason given was "lack of security."

At any rate, it looks to us that it was Rijal’s decision not to visit the camps, as he could have visited the camps if he had so wished. Whatever tapes video and audio he may produce on the human rights violations in the camps, his case on the refugee problem in eastern Nepal has considerably been weakened by his failure to visit the camps.

Another point that strikes us is that Rijal is going to present his case on refugee problem as a part of the broader matrix of human rights violations by Bhutan government. If that is so, his position on the refugee issue is not dissimilar to Bhutan’s position that the issue is not a "refugee problem," but something more.

Geneva Visit:

Reaching Geneva, Rijal and his delegation had meetings with representatives of key government and agencies participating in the EXCOM meeting of UNHCR. The delegation urged the international countries to exert influence on Bhutan, Nepal, India and the UNHCR to find a durable solution to the refugee problem. In a statement they said that the "urgent need (is) for Bhutan to comply with its international obligations and give assurances that it will protect and promote the fundamental rights of its citizens." The statement also pointed out that the desire of the people is to return to their country in safety and security with guarantees and full citizenship rights.

55th EXCOM meeting of UNHCR:

Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, made a reference to Bhutanese refugees in his inaugural speech of the 55th executive committee meeting. He described the situation of the Bhutanese people in the camps in Nepal as "less encouraging." He referred to the developments in Nepal as having made it more urgent for a final solution for the refugees. He reiterated the known position of UNHCR of possible alternatives- voluntary repatriation to Bhutan, resettlement including to countries in the region and gradual broadening of assistance to encompass refugee hosting areas.

Lubbers also referred to the assurance he had from USA of increasing the quota for resettlement of refugees.

There was however no reference to India this time though in the 54th meeting he had urged the States, particularly neighbouring India to assist Bhutan and Nepal to identify a just, humane and durable solution for the refugees. Lubbers was perhaps aware that he was knocking against a stone wall!

Verification Process:

Verification process for the remaining camps has not started despite the fact that the differences between Bhutan and Nepal over the Kudenabari incident that occurred on December 2003 have been sorted out.

In our last two updates (39 & 40) we have made a brief reference to a ‘doable’ solution to the refugee problem. The suggestion of UNHCR though not so specific was also on the same lines.

The proposals made are known to have been translated and are in circulation in all the camps. The UNHCR proposal had also been discussed and some are against resettlement in Nepal!

What is interesting is that most of the refugees realise that they have reached a dead end. The views are getting polarised with many for a radical move and others for resettlement on some proportions. The surprise is that the people in Goldhop and Timaye camps who were considered to be more docile seem to opt for more radical solutions!

It is our earnest hope that before the issue gets internationalised or radicalised, an acceptable solution is found.