We appreciate the concerns that your Government has expressed at the deeply troubling situation of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
As the High Commissioner noted in his speech at the opening session of UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting held in Geneva last week, there is a critical need for urgent measures to resolve this situation after twelve years of stalemate. The situation has become even more disturbing with the deteriorating security situation in the country and the withdrawal of police presence from the camps, which has left the refugees without adequate security.
We understand UNHCR's frustration at its exclusion from the verification process and its inability to ensure repatriation for the Bhutanese refugees. However, we do not see the High Commissioner's proposal to gradually withdraw assistance from the camps, to promote local integration in Nepal, and to support third country resettlement, as leading to an outcome that reinforces the right of the refugees to return home - a right that the majority of refugees have indicated they wish to exercise. Nor does it hold the Government of Bhutan accountable for its international obligations to respect the refugees' right to return.
As you know, the undersigned NGOs have been monitoring this situation for quite some time. Some of our organizations recently undertook a joint mission to India and Nepal, where the delegates met with many refugees as well as Government officials and staff of UNHCR and NGOs. During the mission, refugees expressed their desire to be able to return to their homes and properties in Bhutan as full citizens and in conditions of safety and dignity. They told the visiting delegates that they believed only UNHCR could guarantee their security on return.
The undersigned NGOs have also provided extensive and very critical analysis of the deeply flawed verification process which the Governments of Nepal and Bhutan have conducted in Khudunabari camp without UNHCR involvement.
While we note the extraordinary sensitivity and complexity of the situation and the unhelpful attitudes of the Bhutanese and Indian governments, it is vital that fundamental international standards not be compromised. To do so would not only violate the rights of the Bhutanese refugees but also seriously undermine the international refugee system at a time when it is under unprecedented attack from many directions. A decision not to insist on the refugees' right to voluntary repatriation would condone the arbitrary deprivation of nationality on the basis of ethnicity.
We therefore urge you to coordinate your diplomatic, political and economic efforts to:
- Ensure that Bhutanese refugees are able to make fully informed and voluntary choices about their futures.
- Insist on the right of Bhutanese refugees to return to their country with full protection due to them under international law, including the right to return to their original homes and properties and, where this is not possible, to receive full compensation.
- Insist that there should only be two categories in the verification process - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. (In the case of the verification already undertaken in Khudunabari camp, all those persons classified in categories I, II and IV should be treated as Bhutanese and be enabled to return to Bhutan as full citizens in safety and dignity.) For those classified as non-Bhutanese, a full, fair and independent appeals process should be established.
- Insist that UNHCR should be involved in the verification and appeals process.
- Ensure international monitoring of the repatriation process by UNHCR, which has the mandate and the expertise for this task. It is vital that only an agency with a protection mandate and relevant experience should be given the responsibility of monitoring this return.
- Support UNHCR to promote local integration and third country resettlement for those refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to Bhutan.
- Ensure that no child is rendered stateless or separated from his/her family as a result of the verification and return process.
- Ensure that women are individually registered and protected from gender discrimination through the entire process.
- Ensure that refugee representatives are consulted and involved at all stages of the process.
- Encourage the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the human rights implications of this situation.
The situation of the Bhutanese refugees has reached an impasse. The bilateral process has so far totally failed to respect the rights of the refugees or to achieve a durable solution for them. It is time for the donor states to Nepal and Bhutan to convene an international conference, bringing all stakeholders together, including UN agencies and refugee representatives, to devise a comprehensive solution to this protracted refugee situation that meets international standards and gives due consideration to each of the durable solutions: voluntary repatriation, local integration and third country resettlement.
It is vital that all those who care about the protection of these refugees and, by extension, the integrity of the international refugee system, use their influence to address this issue with the greatest urgency.
Refugee Policy Advisor
Human Rights Watch
pp. Peter N. Prove
Assistant to the General Secretary
The Lutheran World Federation
South Asia Regional Programme
Habitat International Coalition - Housing and Land Rights Network
Advocacy and Policy Coordinator
Jesuit Refugee Service
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service