The Bhutanese refugee issue is in the news for all the wrong reasons. While there appears to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for some refugees with announcements of third-country resettlement, recent incidents in the camps and on the India-Nepal border only reiterate the need for careful and sensitive handling.
The violent clashes between the refugees on their 'long march' and the Indian security forces on the Meichi bridge as well as the death of two youths in firing by the Nepal Police in the refugee camps to disperse a mob attacking those supporting resettlement earlier highlight the instability and insecurity in the community.
Since the early 90s, over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin have been living in UNHCR camps in southeastern Nepal after being evicted from southern Bhutan for supporting a pro-democracy movement. Fifteen rounds of bilateral talks later, Bhutan and Nepal have little to show as far as a resolution is concerned.
Bhutan has remained adamant in its stand that the refugees are in fact illegal immigrants from Nepal and India even though a majority of them possess citizenship documents. Nepal's own internal political crisis has also weakened the country's negotiating position in the bilateral talks.
Meanwhile, life in the refugee camps has been extremely tough with hope of a resolution diminishing with every passing year. The refugees' optimism of early return to Bhutan has given way to fears that that their children too will live as refugees. Severe budget cuts for UNHCR have also meant serious cut backs in food, clothing, fuel, health care and housing.
The denial of access to jobs has led to frustration and restlessness in the community. In these circumstances, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres' recent visit to the camps reiterating UNHCR's commitment towards a "durable solution" of the crisis is a welcome development. This was followed closely by the visit of US Ambassador James Moriarty regarding his country's offer to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees.
The refugees, however, are deeply divided on the issue of resettlement. Many fear that resettlement of more than half of the community will dilute their larger struggle for democracy, justice and recognition as legitimate citizens of Bhutan. Others are concerned that pursuing resettlement and not repatriation, would allow Bhutan to abdicate from its role and responsibility in the crisis.
Further, they fear that encouraged by this 'appeasement', Bhutan will begin a second wave of evictions before the much awaited 2008 elections. Bhutan's 2005 census recorded 13 percent 'foreigners' and there is legitimate concern that these 'foreigners' are in fact an oblique reference to ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan.
A 'durable solution' involves the simultaneous pursuit of voluntary repatriation, third country resettlement and local integration. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' commitment to "continue to knock on Bhutan's doors on behalf of all those who want to return to their country" is encouraging, there need to be visible and concrete steps towards this end. It is time that UNHCR along with donor countries also begins exploring issues of reparations and property restitution and compensation.
In international law, refugees have the right to choose from the three options that are a part of the 'durable solution' process. This choice is meaningless in the absence of complete information on the terms and conditions of resettlement as well as of negotiations on voluntary repatriation and local integration. As highlighted in 'Last Hope' the recently released Human Rights Watch report on the Bhutanese refugee situation, access to information is key for enabling refugees to decide the course of their future. In fact, one of the main reasons for the deep divide in the refugee camps between resettlement and repatriation, and the resultant instability, is the absence of clear accurate and reliable information.
The refugee camps are abuzz with questions, doubts and rumours about each of the options. Many refugees wonder if resettlement involves simply being relocated to refugee camps in America; others are concerned about the status and rights of children born in the camps in the context of repatriation and some want to know if the refugee camps will be shut down if a large section opts for resettlement and what will become of those who have chosen not to go.
UNHCR and the international community need to do go much beyond lip service. Apart from giving credible information that the most marginalised can comprehend, it needs to hold India to its promise of engaging Bhutan in a dialogue for just and voluntary repatriation. More importantly, leaders among the refugee community need to ensure that no person is stopped from accessing information or from making a free and informed choice. Only then can a 'durable solution' can be achieved, one that is just, allowing each refugee to choose his or her own destiny.
(Malavika Vartak is a WISCOMP fellow researching refugee issues. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)