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Kamala Sarup: UNHCR And Bhutanease Refugees?

UNHCR's Decision and Bhutanease Refugees?

By Kamala Sarup

The UNHCR has just announced that they are gradually reducing their facilities for Bhutanese refugees, even though refugee representatives have been continually appealing for a greater supply of various staples. The cut in UNHCR aid fundamentally affects the lives of the Bhutanese, and directly impacts their human rights.

For ten years Bhutanese who have been forced to leave their country have been living in Nepal, but no international human rights organizations, NGOs, Bhutanese government have established any effective, concrete program to protect their rights. The seminars, talks, programs, meetings, articles and interviews have done nothing to help the Bhutanese with their problems or defend their fundamental rights.

Given the urgency of the situation, UNHCR and as well as other humanitarian organizations should launch an emergency campaign for Bhutanese refugees. UNHCR's 6,000 staff work in 115 countries worldwide, has helped more than 50 million people over the past five decades should not cut it's aid for Bhutanese refugees.

Sadako Ogata, the UNHCR has recently said "The issue of human rights and the problems of refugees are inextricably linked. The vast majority of refugees are driven from their homes by human rights abuses. Persecution, torture, killings and the reprehensible practice of 'ethnic cleansing' generate huge flow of refugees".

On the other side US Ambassador James F Morairty recently said "International community is making efforts at solving the Bhutanese refugee problem," .

With time running out before the UNHCR intends to leave the Bhutanese with nowhere to go, local officials in Jhapa and Morang in eastern Nepal have begun cutting down the basic facilities for refugees.

Four players have crucial roles in deciding the future of over 100,000 Bhutanese: the UNHCR, the Nepali government, the Bhutanese government, and India as the largest neighbor of the two countries. Unless these four parties come together to ensure a decent future for the refugees, they will have nowhere to turn.

Bhutan plans to delay the verification and repatriation process, Nepal is busy with its own internal Maoists chaos, India has shown no interest in finding the solution, and the UNHCR insists it will leave the refugees by the end of the year regardless of their circumstances.

Though the JVT reports that over 80 percent of the people in camps in Jhapa and Morang are Bhutanese, the Bhutanese monarch announced, while in India as the chief guest at Republic Day celebrations, that there are no Bhutanese taking asylum in Nepal. India continues to show no concern despite several requests.

The first official dialogue on the problems of Bhutanese refugees was held on April 10, 1993. Bhutan invited Nepalese delegation for talks to Thimphu on July 15, 1993. On September 13, 1993, the Bhutan-Nepal Joint Ministerial Committee Talk (JMLT) , comprising Home Minister of both countries was constituted. The first JMLT was held in Kathmandu on October 4-7, 1993. The sixth JMLT held in Thimphu on April 20, 1995 but those all six meetings were failed.

Nepal never tried to garner international support for the Bhutanese cause. Working under Nepalese law, the UNHCR finds it difficult to offer solutions unless they are authorized by the Nepalese government. Nepal also never tried to hand over decision making or call for international assistance when it was miserably unsuccessful in finding a solution. Its only request to the international community and the UNHCR has been to continue providing facilities to the refugees.

The newly elected camp secretary of Beldangi Extension, Subash Acharya, expressed his concern that "the dilemma cannot be resolved unless the Nepalese government allows the refugees themselves to find an appropriate solution meeting their growing needs. The role of the UNHCR and its international donors is to assist the refugees in doing so. After a recent windstorm blew over many huts in the camps, the UNHCR and the Red Cross would not provide materials to rebuild them. The affected had to take shelter in the camp offices. They had to seek help from neighbors to buy bamboo and thatch". He said.

It is true, the Bhutanese camps are now established in terms of sanitation and water systems, healthcare and education programmes. But if the UNHCR has begun cutting services to the refugees it will creat misery for the very lives of Bhutanese refugees. UNHCR is working with the Government and other UN agencies to protect the right of refugees, should take the crucial next step.

Nepali-speaking southern Bhutanese, known as Lhotshampas, were driven out of the country by the Bhutanese government in 1990. Over 134,000 Bhutanese citizens, approximately 20 percent of Bhutan's total population, are now living in refugee camps in Nepal and India. Nepal wants all Bhutanese refugees to go back to their homes but Bhutan has been avoiding to constitute verification mechanism.

Only little attention has been given to the plight of the Bhutanese refugees for over a decade. International donor agencies continue to pour resources into Bhutan without addressing the refugee crisis or attaching conditions to the donations.

So the UNHCR should play a critical role in finding concrete ways for alternative solutions to the crisis. Nepali government and as well as International government, and US have to do everything to make sure the assistance of Bhutanese refugees.


(Kamala Sarup is an editor of

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