Exactly a year after the remark that his ‘government was committed to work out a solution to the refugee impasse’ with then Nepali counterpart Madhav Kumar Nepal, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley uttered similar assurances during his recent three-day visit to Kathmandu. At a press meet in the Nepali capital before flying back home, Prime Minister Thinley, as in an interview with Aljazeera last year, repeated that Lhotshampa refugees in UN-monitored camps in eastern Nepal were ‘socio-economic and environmental refugees’, requiring proper verification. He refused to address them as political victims. Nonetheless, Thinley and Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal have agreed to resume bilateral talks, halted since 2003. Surprising is that, as in the past meetings, no agreement on a date has been made.
Ever since the joint ministerial committee held its last – 15th – round of talks in October 2003 in Thimphu, rumours of a resumption of dialogue have been floating around in both Nepal and Bhutan. The last Thimphu meeting had led to a formation of the Joint Verification Team (JVT), which would visit the camps themselves. Of the total 12,090 refugees in Khudunabari camp interviewed for verification, the JVT stated that only 293 were bonafide Bhutanese eligible to return to Bhutan.
The result of this process subsequently placed refugees into four categories: Bonafide Bhutanese citizens (2.5 percent); refugees who ‘voluntarily’ migrated from Bhutan (70 percent); non-Bhutanese (24 percent); and refugees who have committed ‘criminal’ acts, including those who participated in ‘anti-national’ pro-democracy activities in Bhutan (3 percent). According to short documentary film, Politics of Bhutan,by activist Jogen Gazmere, the verification process categorised even a three-year-old born and raised in camps as a ‘criminal’. Inevitably, such incongruities raised questions over Thimphu’s sincerity in resolving the protracted issue.
Prime Minister Thinley’s fluctuating remarks, from labelling all refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’ to his recent statement that some are indeed genuine Bhutanese, also reflect a nebulous approach. In 1992, at an international conference on Bhutan in London, Thinley, then home secretary, presented a paper in which he defended his government’s position against southern Bhutanese, labelling them as illegal immigrants. During the recent visit, Thinley’s delegation in Kathmandu was accompanied by Khandu Wangchuck, minister for economic and foreign affairs, who in 2006 called the refugees ‘readymade terrorists’. Such backgrounding certainly makes one wonder whether, instead of waiting for another round of talks to materialise, refugees should ponder third-country resettlement, launched by the UN’s refugee agency in 2007.
Back in 2003, a coalition of five NGOs – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Lutheran World Federation, Habitat International Coalition and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group – were so frustrated by the failure of the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to provide a solution that they called for help from the donors that had been supporting the Bhutanese in the camps. The coalition asked these organisations to convene an international conference including the two governments, refugee representatives, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and other relevant UN agencies to devise a comprehensive and just solution. Against this backdrop of frustration come Prime Minister Thinley’s recent assurances to his Nepali counterpart.
Thinley’s delegation has also ruled out India’s role in the repatriation process. However, the issue falls within the broader realm of the Indian government’s strategic policy towards the Northeast and, in particular, towards the ethnic Nepalese in the region. In 2007, Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s foreign minister, had readily admitted that the refugee issue was an international problem, and that New Delhi was trying to work out a solution. Yet India has always seemed reluctant to assist in Bhutanese refugee repatriation.
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This article first appeared on Himal SouthAsian and is reproduced with permission.