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Nepal/Bhutan: Donors Called On To Resolve Protracted Refugee Problem

Joint NGO Letter to the Delegates of the Bhutan Donors Round Table Meeting

Dear Sir/Madam,

Re: Bhutan: Round Table meeting on 15 February 2006

As a group of non-governmental organizations with a long-term involvement with the Bhutanese refugees – through advocacy on behalf of this community as well as in humanitarian service delivery and support – we would like to raise a number of concerns with you in advance of the Round Table meeting of Bhutan’s development partners to be held in Geneva on 15
February 2006.

Fifteen years have passed since the forcible exile of the majority of the ethnic Nepali southern Bhutanese population without a durable solution for the approximately 106,000 people now living in the refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. During the last Round Table meeting of Bhutan’s development partners held in Geneva in February 2003, delegates expressed concern at the unconscionably long delay in resolving this humanitarian and human rights crisis. At that meeting, some of Bhutan’s partners also raised the issue of alleged ongoing discrimination against ethnic minorities in Bhutan, including in relation to the issuance of ID cards, and urged that the principle of equal treatment, irrespective of ethnic origin, be established in the new Constitution. We share these concerns, and are dismayed that, three years on, they remain unresolved.

The Round Table meeting to be held in Geneva this month will bring together many of the stakeholders who could play a part in resolving the longstanding Bhutanese refugee crisis. In anticipation of this meeting, we would like to take this opportunity to set out our current concerns and recommendations.

Deadlock in the process for resolving the Bhutanese refugee crisis

In June 2003, after an inexplicably and inexcusably lengthy delay, the Bhutanese government announced the results of a pilot verification exercise conducted in Khudunabari camp in 2001, agreeing to take back those people placed in Categories I (bona fide Bhutanese citizens), II ("voluntary emigrants") and IV ("criminals"): a total of 75% of those screened. Since the end of 2003, the Bhutanese government has periodically declared itself willing to resume bilateral talks, and to honour the agreements already made with Nepal to repatriate at least a proportion of the refugees. However, no concrete steps have been taken to resume bilateral talks with Nepal, or to proceed with voluntary repatriation of any of the refugees. Moreover, guarantees of the conditions of return to Bhutan have been inadequate or entirely lacking.

It must also be remembered that Khudunabari is only one of the seven refugee camps – with a population of only about 12,000 out of the estimated total of 106,000 – and that no steps have yet been taken towards verification in any of the six other refugee camps.

Bhutan’s population figures

Population figures for Bhutan have been notoriously problematic. Results of the nationwide census held in June 2005 suggest that the government may be categorising a significant number of the Lhotshampas (Southern Bhutanese) still living in Bhutan as non-nationals. In 2004, official figures put Bhutan's population at 730,340, and the number of foreign workers in Bhutan at 40,350. The June 2005 census has found the population of Bhutan to be 553,000. We must ask whether the declaration that more than 125,000 non-nationals are working in Bhutan (as stated by the King in October 2005) amounts to a declaration of “denaturalization” of the majority of Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan.

As much as Bhutan’s development partners should not be silent about the history and continuing humanitarian consequences of the discriminatory policies implemented by Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, neither can they stand by when faced with the prospect of similar numbers of Bhutanese people being deprived of their citizenship in 2006.

Bhutan’s draft Constitution

Elements of Bhutan’s draft Constitution, published in July 2005, tend to confirm our doubts about the possibility of Lhotshampas retaining or reacquiring their citizenship. The citizenship status of Lhotshampas has been eroded by various measures taken since the end of the 1980s. Essentially, what makes their situation precarious is the denial of their right to a nationality. The provisions of the draft Constitution, if followed to the letter, would make it very difficult for Lhotshampas to reacquire citizenship status of which they had been deprived. However, the King, under the terms of the draft Constitution, is above the law and pursuant to his royal prerogative may exercise powers relating to matters which are not provided for under the Constitution or other laws – giving him the possibility of correcting this injustice despite the stipulations of the Constitution.

The need for action

The refugees in the camps have been living in limbo for fifteen years, unable to plan for the future or take control over their lives. Not surprisingly, morale in the camps in Nepal is very low. Refugees are faced with a deterioration in both the physical environment and the resources available to them. At the same time the security situation in Nepal has deteriorated severely, putting this vulnerable population at even greater risk. A just and durable solution which will enable the refugees to restore some stability and normalcy to their lives is desperately needed.

We believe that sustained international pressure is the only realistic means for achieving a rapid and durable solution to the Bhutanese refugee crisis and for ensuring that members of the Lhotshampa community in Bhutan enjoy their full citizenship rights. We urge Bhutan's development partners to press for implementation of the following recommendations.

1. Bhutan must take practical and concrete steps to demonstrate its stated commitment to a just resolution of the longstanding refugee crisis. It should, among other actions, proceed immediately to repatriate the Khudunabari camp refugees verified as having a right to return to Bhutan and who wish to do so.

2. Bhutan, Nepal and UNHCR should adopt a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for voluntary repatriation that includes a clear statement of rights and entitlements upon the refugees’ return to Bhutan - including full citizenship rights and human rights protections. The MOU must include a provision for monitoring of repatriation by an independent third party, ideally UNHCR.

3. An accelerated and simplified verification exercise needs to be carried out in the six camps which have not yet been screened, based on two categories only: Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese.

4. A registration exercise needs to be carried out urgently (by UNHCR or an appropriate NGO) to provide a baseline census of the entire current camp population. Those refugees in most immediate need should be identified, and the interest of individual refugees/households in each of the three durable solutions (voluntary repatriation to Bhutan, resettlement in third countries, and local integration in Nepal) assessed.

5. Donors, UN agencies and Bhutan's other partners should insist on measures to eliminate discrimination against Lhotshampas who have remained in Bhutan since the exodus of refugees, and to ensure the protection of their fundamental human rights and their right to participate as full citizens of Bhutan.

6. Bhutan’s development partners should urge the King to exercise his royal prerogative to regularise the nationality status of Lhotshampas who have no prospect of claiming any nationality other than Bhutanese.

7. Donors should provide increased support for new programs and projects in the south of Bhutan and the east of Nepal to create new economic and educational opportunities which do not discriminate in purpose or effect, including on the basis of race or ethnicity; and to facilitate voluntary repatriation and local integration.

8. Pending a full resolution of the crisis, donors should seek assurances from the Government of Nepal that it will not obstruct the exit of refugees wishing to leave Nepal, especially for vulnerable cases or those requiring protection.

In expectation of clear and concrete progress in the forthcoming Round Table discussions, we remain,

Yours faithfully,


Peter N. Prove (The Lutheran World Federation)
on behalf of:

Amnesty International
Bhutanese Refugee Support Group (UK and Ireland)
Caritas Internationalis
Human Rights Watch
International Catholic Migration Commission
Jesuit Refugee Service
The Lutheran World Federation

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