Bhutanese Refugees: Nepal lends a helping hand
by K N Adhikari on 20 Jul 2012 1 Comment

For the Government and people of Nepal, the issue of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees has become and remains a matter of great concern. For the Government of Nepal, the need to make all arrangements for the refugees for so many years now, poses a serious challenge. We have taken up the matter with concerned governments and multilateral agencies for support in the refugees' sustenance, and in sending them back to their home country with honour and dignity. For Nepal, this has been a matter of emotional and physical suffering, social problems and other unwanted difficulties. At the same time, the international community, including various governments and international bodies, has taken pains to extend moral and material support to the refugees and help them to resettle in various countries under the third-country resettlement programme.


It would be in order to briefly mention how the refugee problem came about and what steps have been taken so far to resolve it. In April 1990, a small number of Bhutanese people from the southern part of that entered Nepal, perhaps just 12 in all. They were known as Lhotshampas. They were permitted to stay without causing too much concern among the authorities, who hoped they would soon go back.


But by February 1991, the number of Bhutanese refugees rose to over 5000. After this, a massive number of Bhutanese people crossed Indian territory and entered Nepal and sought asylum there. Their numbers had crossed over 100,000 by 2000. The Government of Nepal has taken it as purely a humanitarian problem and has been trying its best to provide them shelter in the hope that they will go back to Bhutan one day. They were gradually accommodated in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal, and UNHCR, WFP and a number of INGOs have been providing assistance to them.


As the number went on rising, the Government of Nepal initiated efforts to send the refugees back to Bhutan. In July 1993, Nepal's Home Minister, Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba, visited Bhutan and held discussions with his Bhutanese counterpart. They agreed to establish a Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) to bring about a speedy and durable solution to the problem. The first meeting of the MJC, held in Kathmandu in October 1993, agreed to group the refugees into four categories, viz. bona fide Bhutanese if they have been evicted forcefully; Bhutanese who emigrated voluntarily; non-Bhutanese people; and those who have committed criminal acts.


The MJC continued its meeting without concrete achievements. After a few rounds, the MJC at the level of Home Ministers was changed to the level of Foreign Ministers. The 10th meeting of the MJC, held in Kathmandu in 2000, agreed to go for field verification and a Joint Verification Team (JVT) was constituted for verifying the refugees. It commenced its work in March 2001, at Khudunabari Camp in Jhapa. The 13th MJC meeting held in Thimphu in March 2003 reached agreement on the modalities for the implementation of the outcome of the JVT's work at Khudunabari Camp.

At the 15th MJC meeting in Thimphu in October 2003, both sides agreed to repatriate the refugees staying in Khudunabari Camp falling under categories 1, 2, and 4, and entrusted the JVT to review appeals by those falling under category 3. The meeting also agreed to take up Shanichare Camp for verification in the 2nd stage. Further, the MJC also agreed to the request of the Government of India for facilitating the safe passage of refugees to their home country.


In the Khudunabari Camp, about 70 per cent of the refugees were found to be genuine Bhutanese who were either evicted or had left voluntarily.


During a briefing session by the Bhutanese side, held in December 2003, about the terms and procedures applicable in Bhutan to the refugees upon their return to Bhutan, an unfortunate incident had occurred. After that, the Bhutanese side decided to leave Nepal without consulting the Nepalese side, which for Nepal is regrettable. Even after Nepal's repeated assurance of full security of the Bhutanese team, no meetings have taken place and no progress has been made between the two countries. Thus, the 15th meeting of the MJC was the last meeting on the issue, and in the meantime, some refugees made unsuccessful attempts to return to Bhutan on their own.


The Government of Nepal has since been requesting the Government of Bhutan to resume the MJC and JVT meetings. Leaders of the two sides have met on various other occasions. Nepal has been consistent on its position that the only durable solution to the problem is the return of the refugees to their home country in honour and dignity.


The Bhutanese refugee problem has created a financial burden for Nepal and the international community, as well as social and environmental problems for Nepal. The issue took a new turn from November 2007, when Nepal agreed to a third country resettlement programme.


Nepal has been working with IOM and UNHCR for resettling the refugees in countries willing to accept the Bhutanese refugees languishing in camps for about two decades. As of 31 May 2012, the distribution of the third country resettlement is as follows: the USA 54,814; Canada 4,691; Australia 3,490; New Zealand 653; Denmark 618; Norway 509; The Netherlands 326; and the UK 224; making the total 65,325. I understand that this number has now reached 66,876. The UNHCR has received Declaration of Interest forms for nearly 90,000 refugees as of 7 July 2010. The remaining applications are under process.


But the durable solution is for the refugees to return to their home country with honour and dignity; third country resettlement is only a second option. Nepal agreed to third country resettlement for the Bhutanese refugees without any prejudice to their inalienable right to return to their home country at an opportune time.


When we discuss the problem of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, a question naturally arises about the role of India in this matter. It is up to the Governments of India and Bhutan to speak about their policies, plans and positions. As a friendly and traditionally very close neighbour of both Nepal and Bhutan, we feel India can play a facilitating role in finding a mutually acceptable solution to the problem. India has been the transit country for refugees crossing over to Nepal. Hence it has to facilitate the return of the refugees to Bhutan as well. We understand the close relationship between India and Bhutan, but Nepal expected, and still expects, a balanced, constructive and positive role from India in finding a durable solution to this problem. It was in this spirit that the 15th MJC had  decided to request the Government of India for facilitating the safe passage of refugees to their home country.


Nepal and Bhutan are very good friends, and since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1983 the two countries have always remained close neighbours. Both are members of the UN, SAARC, BIMSTEC, etc. Both are least developed, landlocked countries, and have been extending cooperation in various international forums. For some years now, we have focused on promoting economic and commercial ties, with emphasis on matters relating to trade, culture and tourism. We regularly hold meetings on trade and other matters. We have an Air Services Agreement since 2004, and Druk Air is operating flights between Kathmandu and Paro. The ASA also has provisions for Druk Air to fly up to Bodh Gaya and Mumbai via Kathmandu.


It is our considered opinion that the refugees issue remains a challenge for the cordial and friendly relations between Nepal and Bhutan. Nepal is not a party to the International Convention on Refugees, 1951, nor to its Protocol of 1967; and therefore does not have any legal obligation to accept refugees from other countries. We allowed the Bhutanese people to enter and stay in our territory purely on humanitarian grounds, as a temporary measure and with the hope that they would soon go back to their country with honour and dignity. Nepal has utilized all available avenues to solve this humanitarian problem in a peaceful manner. We remain hopeful that the Government of Bhutan will be more forthcoming, resume the bilateral process stalled since 2003, and help find a durable and mutually acceptable solution to this unexpected and unwanted irritant in our bilateral relations.


The author is the Charge' d'Affaires, Embassy of Nepal, New Delhi; the article is based on a presentation at the Symposium on ‘Bhutanese Refugees: The Tragic Story of the Forgotten People’ by Human Rights Defense (India) in New Delhi on 14 July 2012

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