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I. Summary

Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal’s refugee camps may finally have an end in sight for their ordeal. The fourteenth round of ministerial-level talks between Bhutan and Nepal, scheduled to begin on May 19, 2003, has the potential to find durable solutions for this refugee situation which has troubled the region for well over a decade. A lasting solution, however, requires that basic rights of refugees be respected throughout the process. Based on field research conducted in Nepal and India in March and April 2003, Human Rights Watch has identified three areas in which rights protections will be critical to the success of the effort: the status verification process, currently underway, must ensure that all refugees have a fair, timely, and transparent resolution of their claims to Bhutanese nationality; repatriation must in all cases be genuinely voluntary; and Bhutanese authorities must guarantee the full rights of returning refugees, including citizenship rights.

Bhutanese refugees, numbering some 102,140, are living in seven refugee camps in southeastern Nepal jointly administered by Nepal and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most are Nepali-speaking and many had spent all or most of their lives in Bhutan. They fled or were forcibly evicted from their homes in Bhutan in the early 1990s when the Bhutanese government introduced highly discriminatory citizenship policies targeting ethnic Nepalese, particularly those critical of the government’s policies.

The Royal Government of Bhutan, a hereditary monarchy ruled by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has long refused to recognize the refugees’ claims to Bhutanese nationality. The government has asserted that the refugees are either not Bhutanese nationals or are voluntary migrants who gave up their citizenship upon departing Bhutan. After years of stalled negotiations, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal are currently implementing a joint status verification and categorization process as a precursor to repatriation. However, this process has excluded UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from meaningful participation or monitoring, and has been painfully slow: only 10 percent of the refugees have been interviewed since March 2001 and their categorization has yet to be announced.

Human Rights Watch urges the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to use the May 2003 round of ministerial-level talks to initiate a verification and repatriation process that promotes and protects the rights of refugees. UNHCR and the international community, particularly the government of India and donor countries to Bhutan, should take active measures to ensure that one of the region’s most intractable refugee situations is resolved with full compliance and respect for international human rights standards. As a priority, all concerned parties should:

  • Promote a transparent, fair, and efficient status verification and categorization process.
  • Ensure voluntary repatriation in conditions of safety and dignity.
  • Find durable solutions for refugees unwilling or unable to return to Bhutan.
  • Invite international monitoring and facilitation at all stages.

Bhutan is also currently drafting its first constitution. This constitution should ensure equal protection under the law for all persons in Bhutan, including naturalized citizens, ethnic minorities, and women. A more complete set of recommendations is set forth at the end of this briefing paper, detailing the steps that Human Rights Watch believes the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, as well as international actors, can take to achieve these objectives.

This briefing paper is based on an investigation Human Rights Watch conducted in March and April 2003. Our researchers interviewed 112 refugees in the following camps in Jhapa and Morang districts of southeastern Nepal: Khudanabari, Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Timai, Goldhap, and Sanischare. Of these 112 interviews, thirty-seven were with refugees who were elected representatives in the camp management committee, members of the refugee-run NGOs operating in the camps, teachers, or health workers. We also conducted five focus groups with refugee youth and women.

Human Rights Watch conducted thirty-five interviews with concerned U.N. agencies and NGOs, including the Kathmandu and Bhadrapur field offices of UNHCR, all the aid agencies working as implementing partners in the camps, UNICEF, refugee advocacy groups, and Nepalese NGOs. We also interviewed fifteen ethnic Nepalese currently living in Bhutan. Human Rights Watch conducted nine interviews with Nepalese government officials and police, including Foreign Minister N.B. Shah and camp-level administrators of the Refugee Coordination Unit (RCU). In New York, Human Rights Watch interviewed Lyonpo Om Pradhan, ambassador and permanent representative of Bhutan to the U.N., and Yeshey Dorji, the deputy permanent representative.

All names of the refugees interviewed are withheld or changed in this briefing paper to protect their confidentiality.

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