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IV. Pre-conditions for Voluntary Repatriation


The principle of voluntariness is the cornerstone of international protection with respect to the return of refugees. While the issue of voluntary repatriation as such is not addressed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, it follows directly from the principle that no refugee should be returned to a place where his or her life or freedom is under threat (non-refoulement) and that the involuntary return of refugees would raise refoulement concerns.49

UNHCR has an express mandate to protect refugees, which includes a significant role in the coordination and organization of voluntary repatriation operations and in monitoring the consequences of return. As a practical matter, UNHCR also serves as one of the few voices that can effectively influence states' behavior toward refugees. It is for these reasons that Human Rights Watch believes that UNHCR could play an effective and constructive role in the verification exercise, which is intended to lead directly into a voluntary repatriation exercise.

The most important tool for assessing the quality of any repatriation exercise is UNHCR’s Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation (“Repatriation Handbook”).50 The Repatriation Handbook recognizes that establishing a truly voluntary repatriation program is not only consonant with international law but is also the most pragmatic approach to repatriation: "Repatriation which is voluntary is far more likely to be lasting and sustainable."51

"Push" Factors

According to UNHCR, an important prerequisite to ensuring that a decision to repatriate is voluntary is "the absence of measures which push the refugee to repatriate.”52 According to the Repatriation Handbook, “[r]efugee repatriation is not voluntary when host country authorities deprive refugees of any real freedom of choice through outright coercion or measures such as, for example, reducing essential services.”53

This point is reinforced elsewhere in the Repatriation Handbook: "There must be no threat to phase down basic refugee assistance programmes in connection with registration" for repatriation. Bhutanese refugees in Nepal so far have enjoyed a situation with very few explicit “push” factors. Instead, many of the refugees expressed an overwhelming desire to Human Rights Watch to go home to Bhutan. However, Human Rights Watch urges the government of Nepal and UNHCR to ensure that basic assistance is not phased down once repatriation draws nearer.

Neutral, Accurate, and Objective Information

A serious and pressing problem is the absence of neutral, accurate, and objective information on conditions in Bhutan that is regularly disseminated to all refugees. Such an exchange of information is an essential component of a successful voluntary repatriation program. UNHCR has stated that "[o]nly an informed decision can be a voluntary decision."54 UNHCR itself has a key responsibility to provide such information to refugees: "Information campaigns are UNHCR's core responsibility and principal mechanism to promote voluntary repatriation and to ensure that refugees' decisions are taken in full knowledge of the facts."55 The Repatriation Handbook further specifies that refugees “need to know about what will happen in the event they decide not to volunteer for repatriation.”56

Despite this responsibility, neither UNHCR nor the government of Nepal is making an effort to conduct mass information campaigns to provide refugees with full and updated information about decisions made in recent talks between Bhutan and Nepal or about conditions in Bhutan. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, the protection officer reiterated that, “we will wait for the results of the next round of meetings in May. We have offered our help to the government of Nepal and will wait to be invited before conducting mass information campaigns in the camps.”57

The lack of information is also having a detrimental effect on refugees’ psychological well-being. Rumors spread rapidly in the camps, affecting refugees’ ability to make fully informed decisions regarding repatriation. The longer UNHCR and the government of Nepal wait, the more refugees will rely on the unreliable information that political groups with competing agendas provide. UNHCR claims that it “reduced anxiety among the refugees through counselling.”58 However, Human Rights Watch found that counseling was reserved for serious cases of mental illness, and no effort was being made to provide systematic and updated information or guidance that would address the general anxiety felt by the majority of camp residents. One widowed Sarchop woman, Daza C., related the concerns she felt as an ethnic minority in the camp, “I want to go to Bhutan. I’m alone here. I have no people of my own culture.… But they may arrest me. I cry at night thinking about this. Maybe they have destroyed our house. And will they include me with the Nepalis? I’m alone.”59 Another man, Kabiraj T., told a Human Rights researcher that “maybe the next time you return, I will have gone back to Bhutan. Maybe I’ll be shot dead.”60 A camp management committee member expressed concerns that there will be tensions and fighting between refugees once the categorization results are announced, with some able to return to Bhutan and others rejected.61

The poor quality of information in the camps is also of concern as detailed below, because the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal may face discrimination and other serious human rights abuses once they return to Bhutan. In order for the returns to be truly voluntary and sustainable, refugees need to have detailed information about human rights conditions in their country of origin. Perhaps most important, they must have international monitors present to ensure that their return is indeed “safe and dignifed.” This requirement of an effective repatriation program is discussed in the following section.

49 See footnote thirty-six, above, for a discussion of the customary law obligations of the governments of Nepal and Bhutan with regard to non-refoulement.

50 UNHCR, March 1996. Although the handbook is not binding international law, it provides a set of guidelines by which the behavior of UNHCR and governments during repatriation may be judged. It is also based on several ExCom Conclusions, such as ExCom Conclusion No. 18 (1980), ExCom Conclusion No. 40 (1985), ExCom Conclusion No. 74 (1994), among others.

51 Repatriation Handbook, p. 11.

52 Repatriation Handbook, p. 10.

53 Repatriation Handbook, p. 42 (emphasis in original).

54 Repatriation Handbook, p. 44.

55 Repatriation Handbook, p. 44.

56 Repatriation Handbook, p. 47.

57 Human Rights Watch interview with Abraham Abraham, officer-in-charge, and Giulia Ricciarelli-Ranawat, protection officer, UNHCR Kathmandu office, April 11, 2003.

58 UNHCR, Global Report 2001, p. 311.

59 Human Rights Watch interview with Daza C., name of camp withheld. March 2003.

60 Human Rights Watch interview with Kabiraj T., Khudanabari camp, April 4, 2003.

61 Human Rights Watch interview with Ram K., Khudanabari camp, March 22, 2003.

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