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BHUTAN: THE REFUGEE ISSUE :: By S. Chandrasekharan

While attending the BIMSTEC Conference in Myanmar, Prime Minister Koirala took the opportunity to speak to his Bhutanese counterpart on the still “unresolved” issue of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

This happened when both leaders were participating in the Third Summit of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical ad Economic Cooperation.

While speaking to the RSS Nepal, Koirala said and I quote ” I have requested him ( Bhutanese Prime Minister) to create (an) environment conducive for respectful return of refugees to their homes at a time when most of their offspring had set out abroad under third country rehabilitation bid and the elderly are still languishing in refugee camp.”

PM Koirala is supposed to have made a plea to the Bhutanese PM to be serious to give early solution to the problem. The response of Dr. Tobgay was a non committal “We will see”.

The Figures:

Perhaps Koirala is not aware of the latest situation on the position of the refugees in the camps. There is going to be only one camp left at Beldangi with a residue of less than 17000 refugees.

The old and the infirm have gone with their children and are now longing to come back and spend their last days in the country (here Bhutan) where they lived. There appears to be not may old persons left in the camps and the Nepal PM’s request is not based on ground realities.

In the last official figures given out by UNHCR, it is learnt that as of end 2013, a total of 87,706 refugees have been settled abroad out of a total of roughly 105,000 in the camps. That leaves a balance of 17,294 and this will be less as on today. ( 11th March 2014)

Of these, 9000 and odd refugees are said to be waiting for third country settlement and have already given their willingness to go abroad.

That would leave around 8000 refugees who at the moment do not appear to be interested for third country settlement. They will have to be settled elsewhere and the camps closed once and for all. This will be in the interest of every one including Bhutan, Nepal and even India.

Of the 8000 and odd refugees still left, roughly one third are those who developed local interests by marriage, property acquisition etc. and thus unwilling to leave Nepal. Another one third would be the radicalised group associated with the Maoists of Nepal and ideologically not inclined to leave Nepal. There is the third category who are not well educated, old, infirm and having no younger relatives around. These people being unsure of their future in the countries abroad have decided not to opt for third country settlement.

Though everyone knows, but no one has talked about are about 15 to 18000 refugees who have not registered with the camps but are settled in India and Nepal. In India they are concentrated along the Indo Bhutan border in Assam, North Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Way Forward:

Some way has to be found to settle the balance of refugees that will be left in the refugee camps and also the 18,000 refugees settled illegally in Nepal and India. Some suggestions that would finally put an end to this problem that has affected the lives of the poor refugees and had even spoiled the relations between Nepal and Bhutan would include

1. Bhutan should at least take back roughly one third of the refugees of the 8000 and odd still left in the camps and who have no place to go. These are harmless people who would quietly spend the rest of their lives in the country where they were born. Bhutan is certainly aware that not all refugees in the camps are non Bhutanese citizens as the joint verification in the Kudenabari camp showed. There is another category of really old people who have gone with their children to third countries and are unable to settle down. Bhutan could as a humanitarian gesture allow these people also to return to Bhutan and spend their last few years. It is also hoped that Bhutan has no plans to send some more Lhotsampas out of the country to retain the “ethnic balance”.

2. India and Nepal to a lesser extent legitimise those not registered in the camps but have settled down in both the countries. The modalities can be worked but they cannot be allowed to live illegally for long.

3. Initiative for the final settlement has to come from India and probably a three way meeting among India, Nepal and Bhutan could settle the residual issues to end as I said before once and for all the refugee issue.

:: About the author: SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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