A place to call home

The 6,500 Bhutanese refugees living in two camps in eastern Nepal face an uncertain fate with the decade-long third country resettlement programme drawing to a close. The 26-year-old humanitarian assistance scheme conducted by the World Food Programme for the Bhutanese refugees will also come to an end by the end of this month. Presented with two options—repatriation to the country that exiled them decades ago, or assimilation in the host country whose constitution denies them citizenship—the émigrés living in the Beldangi and Sanischare camps in Jhapa are between a rock and a hard place.

The government, for its part, has always maintained that Nepal is in no position to assimilate them and hence, repatriation is the only way out. But the issue is more complex for the refugees themselves as there is no singular ‘refugee experience’. True, the government must almost always engage in a complex balancing act. Ensuring security in the broadest sense of the term and maintaining social cohesion is a fundamental concern of all governments, but just as essential is protecting the vulnerable. Since the early 1990s, some 108,000 refugees of ethnic Nepali origin from southern Bhutan have been living in Nepal after they were stripped of their citizenship and forced to flee. They took shelter in Nepal and lived in camps run by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). To seek a more permanent solution to the refugee problem, the UNHCR offered three solutions: Third country settlement, repatriation to Bhutan, or assimilation in the host country. The UNHCR has resettled around 100,000 refugees in foreign countries since the launch of its resettlement programme in 2007.

Repatriation is a viable solution under conditions where the country of origin has publicly declared a guarantee to safeguard the rights of previously expelled communities. This has not been the case for Bhutan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have issued concerns over the country’s ongoing discrimination against its Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa communities. Ethnic Nepalis who reside in Bhutan also reported to Human Rights Watch that unfair government policies had made it especially difficult for them to obtain ‘no objection certificates’ (NOCs). The move essentially deprives the group from accessing key state resources such as government employment, higher education, business licences and travel documents.  Bhutanese officials have also historically denied that any forcible expulsion took place, and have continually claimed that ‘voluntary migrants’ would have to endure the country’s profoundly strict citizenship process. For the past 16 years, Nepali authorities have also curtailed basic freedoms for Bhutanese refugees. From prohibiting employment or income-generating activities even within the camps to severely limiting their movement around Nepal, the state has severely barred their capacity to salvage even the slightest semblance of ‘ordinary life’ in this country. Rejecting integration outright without even offering the refugees a chance to demonstrate their economic and social potential seems unjustifiable.

Bhutanese refugees have been marginalised at the national, international and regional forums for too long. But the issue that is both painful for the refugees and damaging to the relations among the nations in this region can no longer be deferred. At this critical juncture, our policies must be guided by humanitarian considerations rather than from a purely national security perspective. The government must do all it can to not let down the dispossessed when they need us the most.

Published: 6 December 2018/The Kathmandu Post


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