The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently announced that it will no longer support the Bhutanese refugees living in eastern Nepal from 2020. However, the UN agency has said that it will not leave the refugees in the lurch. It will make arrangements for their shelter, education, health and food before leaving them.
At the initiative of and with the financial assistance of the UNHCR, semi-concrete houses are being built for the Bhutanese refugees, thus lifting them out of thatched houses. The schools within the refugee camps where education is being imparted to the kids of the refugees up to the basic level will be closed and arrangements have been made by the UNHCR for schooling outside the camps. For this, infrastructure (school buildings) is being built and the salary for twenty teachers will be paid by the UNHCR. Arrangements for the medical treatment of the refugees have also been made by signing contracts with Damak Hospital and AMDA. It may be noted that the UNHCR has drastically cut relief and assistance for the refugees. The UNHCR has made up its mind to leave the refugees forever after supporting them for around thirty years.
Under the resettlement programme launched by the UNHCR in 2007, over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees were resettled in various countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Norway and Denmark. Most of the refugees were resettled in the USA. The programme came to a close more than four years ago.
Now there are around 7,000 Bhutanese refugees left in the country. Only old people and those wanting to go back to Bhutan are living in the refugee camps. As the resettlement programme no longer exists and Bhutan is not willing to take the remaining refugees back, the refugees have grown fidgety. However, some are still optimistic that one day they will get a chance to go back to Bhutan.
The time has come for the country to think about what to do with the remaining Bhutanese refugees. There are at least two options: to repatriate them to Bhutan by holding talks with the Bhutanese government or to assimilate them into the country itself. The first option seems to be out of the question as Bhutan may not take them back. On the other hand, the second option may give rise to problems as there are refugees from other countries as well in the country.
When the Bhutanese refugees landed in eastern Nepal in the early 1990s via India, the country took the initiative in solving the problem by holding negotiations with the Bhutanese government. At the time, the governments in the country were unstable unlike now. A change of the guard was frequent. This also proved to be a setback in successfully holding negotiations with the Bhutanese government. Despite holding as many as fifteen rounds of negotiations with the Bhutanese government, the issue of the refugees could not be solved. It may be noted that India was never involved in the negotiations saying that the problem was bilateral. In fact, the Bhutanese refugees first landed in India, from where they were transported in truckloads to eastern Nepal and the county could not muster up the courage to send them back to India.
In 2003, a ray of hope for the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees arose with the formation of the joint verification team. But the team was stuck in controversy as the refugees themselves opposed it, saying that it tried to verify them without their consent and that the verification was haphazard as some members of a family were verified as bona fide refugees, and the others not. So the team had to abruptly stop the verification process in midstream.
As there was no solution in sight, the UNHCR floated the third country resettlement programme in 2007. Under the programme, over 100,000 refugees were resettled in various countries. The resettled refugees were mostly youths. Although the UNHCR has said that it is leaving the Bhutanese refugees after making arrangements for their livelihoods such as shelter, health, education and food, a pall of worry has descended on the refugees. Their first choice is the repatriation to Bhutan, which seems to be completely impossible to materialise. They do not want to resettle in third countries. But even if they want to, they cannot be resettled in third countries as the resettlement programme has already closed and the UNHCR is stopping supporting them.
However, there is talk about assimilating the remaining Bhutanese refugees in the country itself. The UNHCR says that only the government can decide on such a sensitive issue. Before making a decision on the matter, there should be in-depth discussions on the possible consequences in the future of the decision. There are already Tibetan refugees in the country. Refugees from other countries like the Rohingya are also living in the country. Many Rohingya refugees first came to the country from Bangladesh via India in 2012. There are now about 700 Rohingya refugees living in the country. When Bangladesh took the initiative in repatriating the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar and India declared that it would not give refuge to them and deport those who had landed there, the country has been a preferred destination for them. When the Bhutanese refugees are naturalised, other refugees may also demand that they be assimilated into the citizenry of the country. Therefore, the government should think twice before deciding on the matter.
(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000. He can be reached at email@example.com)