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Your Excellency,

We are a group of nongovernmental organizations with a long term involvement in the Bhutanese refugee situation. We last wrote to you in March this year to express our serious concern at the breakdown in the bilateral process to resolve the refugee crisis.

The Nepalese Government has since carried out an investigation into the incident in Khudunabari camp on December 22, 2003, as requested by the Government of Bhutan. We understand that the Bhutanese government is now willing to resume negotiations to proceed with repatriation of the refugees. While the delays in resolving this matter have been unacceptable, this limited progress is welcome.

However, we remain seriously concerned by the climate of hostility and opposition to the refugees that persists in Bhutan and was expressly fostered by the recent session of Bhutan’s National Assembly. This was manifested in several ways:

1. Bhutan’s Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, dismissed the legitimate concerns of the refugees concerning the categorization and repatriation process in his briefing to the National Assembly on the Khudunabari incident. He was equally dismissive of the Nepalese government’s suggestion that the violent behavior of a small number of refugees may have been provoked by their extreme frustration at the lack of resolution to their plight. His presentation of the situation appears to have been a calculated attempt to foster hostility towards the refugee community.

2. The Foreign Minister made no mention of his government’s commitment to offer repatriation to over 75% of the residents of Khudunabari camp screened in 2001, and to hear the appeals of people categorized as non-Bhutanese.

3. The refugee issue was absent from the list of priorities the King outlined in his address to the Cabinet handing over executive authority to Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba.

4. Ministers reporting to the National Assembly gave no indication that Bhutan is preparing for the repatriation of refugees in the provisions of its ninth five-year plan. During the discussions on resettlement of landless people in Bhutan, there was no reference to the settlement of returning refugees. There was no indication that returning refugees were being factored into population projections or into measures being put in place to provide employment opportunities for a growing work force.

5. Government ministers and Assembly members reiterated the need to be guided by Bhutan’s laws and the resolutions of the National Assembly in seeking a resolution to the refugee problem. They failed to recognize that any settlement of the refugee issue must also occur within the framework of Bhutan's international duties and commitments. Bhutan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child without reservation and declares itself committed to international human rights principles, which include the right to a nationality, the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality, and the right to leave and return to one’s country.

The tone and content of the recent National Assembly debates suggest that Bhutan is still not committed to resolve the refugee crisis. The debates did not help to create a climate of trust which would ensure the safe and sustainable return of the refugees.

The bilateral process has clearly failed. The Bhutanese government continues to stall progress and the Nepalese government remains preoccupied with the country's own political crisis. At the same time, UNHCR has announced its intention to phase out its assistance and presence in the refugee camps by the end of 2005. The Bhutanese refugees cannot be abandoned by the international community. We urge you to use the upcoming UNHCR Executive Committee meeting in Geneva to work with other donors to Bhutan and Nepal to initiate new strategies to promote a just and lasting solution. In particular:

  • Take immediate steps to convene an international conference for all stakeholders in the process (including the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, donor governments, UNHCR and other UN agencies, and refugee representatives) to seek a comprehensive and lasting solution for the Bhutanese refugees. The conference should address a package of solutions for the refugees that would include voluntary repatriation to Bhutan, local integration in Nepal with full accompanying rights, and third country resettlement. Any solution should not preclude the refugees from exercising their fundamental right to return to their own country with full human rights guarantees, including the right to citizenship, when the conditions are conducive.
  • Impress on Bhutan the need to foster a climate of safety and trust for refugee return and to uphold its international obligations to facilitate refugees’ right to return and their right to a nationality. Urge the Bhutanese authorities to comply with the recommendations on Bhutan made by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2001 and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 2004 regarding the right to nationality.
  • Seek immediate assurance from the King of Bhutan that he has not withdrawn from the position that the refugees in Khudunabari camp in Categories I, II and IV can return to their country and reapply for citizenship. Urge him to make this position known to the people of Bhutan in a public declaration.
  • Make development assistance to Bhutan conditional on its demonstrated willingness and ability to resolve the refugee crisis. This includes completing the verification and appeal process in all camps; facilitating the return of all refugees in Categories I, II and IV; and guaranteeing their rights to citizenship, land and all other accompanying rights by the end of 2005 when UNHCR withdraws from the refugee camps.
  • Establish benchmarks to ensure that all current and future development activities in Bhutan reflect the development goals outlined in Bhutan‘s National Human Development Report 2000 and do not exclude any sector of Bhutanese society. Development assistance to Bhutan should be conditional on its demonstrated ability to include all sectors of Bhutanese society in development activities.

The Bhutanese government has expelled one sixth of its population on the basis of their ethnicity and continues to marginalize and discriminate against the remaining Lhotshampas (an estimated 25% of the total population of Bhutan). The international community must not stand by and allow this injustice to continue.

Donors to Bhutan and Nepal must take immediate and decisive action to hold Bhutan accountable to its international obligations and ensure that the refugees are able to return to Bhutan with full citizenship and other accompanying rights. If Bhutan fails to honour its commitments to resolve this long-standing crisis, donors should re-consider their programmes of bilateral support until substantive progress is made.

We look forward to your speedy response and to working together with you to seek a just solution for the Bhutanese refugees.

Yours respectfully,

Diane Goodman
Refugee Policy Director
Human Rights Watch

pp. Peter N. Prove
Assistant to the General Secretary
The Lutheran World Foundation

Malavika Vartak
South Asia Regional Programme
Habitat International Coalition - Housing and Land Rights Network

Melanie Teff
Advocacy and Policy Coordinator
Jesuit Refugee Service

Ralston Deffenbaugh
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Rachael Reilly
Advocacy Coordinator
Bhutanese Refugee Support Group

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