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Nepal/Bhutan: Donors Must Push for Resolution to Refugee Crisis

International Conference Needed; UNHCR Proposal Inadequate

(London) -- Donor countries to Bhutan and Nepal should convene an international conference to resolve the long-standing Bhutanese refugee crisis, six leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said in a joint letter.

In a joint letter to donor governments -- including Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom -- the NGOs said that the bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal had failed to deliver a solution. At the same time, the NGOs said that a proposal put forward by Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to promote local integration in Nepal and resettlement in third countries did not offer a solution for most of the refugees and would compromise their right to return to their homes.

The six NGOs -- including Amnesty International, Habitat International Coalition, Human Rights Watch, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group -- warned that UNHCR's decision to phase out assistance for the refugee camps in southeast Nepal would leave 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in a precarious position.

"The refugees have consistently expressed their desire to go home," said Rachael Reilly, Human Rights Watch's Refugee Policy Advisor. "UNHCR's proposal is not a solution. It does not uphold the refugees' right to return and lets Bhutan off the hook for expelling them in the first place."

The NGOs stressed that UNHCR's decision to phase out assistance for the refugee camps puts the onus on the international community to find a solution to the refugee crisis, one of the most protracted in the world. They called on donors to convene an international conference bringing all the stakeholders together - including U.N. agencies,
governments, and refugee representatives - to find a comprehensive solution for all the refugees. Similar frameworks were successfully developed in the 1980s and 1990s for large refugee populations from Indochina and the Balkans.

Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees - an estimated one sixth of the population of Bhutan - have been living in camps in southeast Nepal since the early 1990s when they were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality and forcibly expelled from Bhutan in one of the largest ethnic expulsions in the world. The U.N. refugee agency, with the help of NGOs, has been providing assistance to the refugees since 1992.

But UNHCR has been systematically excluded from efforts by Bhutan and Nepal to bilaterally resolve the refugee crisis over the past ten years, and the government of Bhutan has flatly denied UNHCR access to the country, which is normally granted in most refugee situations.

In June 2003, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal announced the results of a joint screening process to identify the status of the refugees in one of the camps and determine who could return to Bhutan. According to the screening, less than three percent of the refugees would be able to return to Bhutan with full citizenship rights and tens of thousands could be rendered stateless. NGOs rejected the process as flawed and the results invalid. It has also been called into question by UNHCR and other governments.

"UNHCR and the international community are right to reject the deeply flawed screening process agreed between Bhutan and Nepal," said Peter Prove, Assistant to the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. "It is time for donor governments to take decisive action to help resolve the refugee crisis and bring to an end the refugees' forced exile."

The 15th round of joint ministerial talks between Bhutan and Nepal is due to take place in Thimpu, Bhutan from October 20 to 23.

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