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Protracted Refugee Crises: The Right to Return

Throughout the world, millions of refugees remained in exile unable to return to their homes either because of continuing political instability and insecurity, or because of deliberate obstructions by states unwilling to take them back. In South Asia, despite high level visits by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata to Nepal and Bhutan in April and May 2000, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees, Julia Taft, to Nepal in October 1999, and to Bhutan in January 2000, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees were denied their legitimate right to return to Bhutan and remained in camps in southeast Nepal. The refugees, many of whom were arbitrarily stripped of their Bhutanese nationality despite having lived in Bhutan for several generations, were expelled from the country in the early 1990s during a government crack-down on Bhutanese of ethnic-Nepali origin living in southern Bhutan. Since then, the Bhutanese government has systematically blocked the refugees' return, claiming that the majority are not Bhutanese citizens, and has shunned international offers to assist in resolving the situation.

Elsewhere, in Bosnia and Hercegovina, over one million people remained displaced, the majority of them internally, and unable to return to minority areas due to bureaucratic obstructions and lack of available housing. There was, however, some progress in 2000, and by June UNHCR had registered 19,751 returns, many of them spontaneous, as compared to 7,709 during the comparable period in 1999.

Palestinian refugees remained the largest and most protracted refugee situation in the world. In 1997, UNHCR estimated that there were 6.4 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, about half of whom were believed to be stateless. In March 2000, 3.7 million Palestinian refugees were registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government has made the return of Palestinian refugees both legally and practically impossible since their exodus following the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, and the 1967 war, thus denying Palestinian refugees their legitimate right to return to their own country. Although the resolution of the refugee crisis was a key issue on the agenda of the final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), little progress was made in 2000. Human Rights Watch supported a rights-based approach to the resolution of the refugee problem that upheld the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their own country, as well as opportunities for local integration in host countries or third country resettlement. Individuals should be able to choose freely and in an informed manner their preferred option. In the event that individuals are unable to return to their original homes or place of residence, they should be able to return to the vicinity and compensation should be provided according to international standards.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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