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(Kathmandu) - A US offer to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees has given hope to many of the 106,000 refugees living in Nepal for more than 16 years, but has also heightened tensions in the camps, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Refugees who insist on repatriation as the only acceptable solution have been threatening and intimidating those who voice support for resettlement in the US.

The Bhutanese refugee crisis began in 1991 when Bhutan began to expel ethnic Nepalis, a policy that resulted in the expulsion of one-sixth of the country’s population. But since the announcement of the US offer in October 2006, groups of refugees who insist that the only acceptable solution is return to Bhutan have threatened refugees favorable to resettlement.

“Refugees fundamentally have the right to return to a country that expelled them,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “But all refugees also have the right to make essential choices about their lives without threats and intimidation.”

The 86-page report, “Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India,” discusses the possible solutions to this protracted refugee situation and the choices the refugees now face. It describes conditions of the ethnic Nepali refugees who have languished in exile in Nepal and India, and also documents continuing discrimination against the ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan, who live in fear that they too could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled from the country.

“While repatriation would be the best option for most refugees, it can only be viable if Bhutan upholds its duty to guarantee the returnees’ human rights,” said Frelick. “Until then, repatriation to Bhutan cannot be promoted as a durable solution for the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.”

So far, Bhutan has not allowed a single refugee to return. Consequently, the refugees have endured years in cramped camps with no prospects for solutions. The report documents life in the camps and domestic violence and other social problems that have come after protracted periods in closed camps.

“We don’t want to be dependent on others,” a Bhutanese refugee told Human Rights Watch. “Half our lives have been spent as refugees. We don’t want that tag on our children’s forehead. We want them to be proud citizens.”

Since the announcement of the US resettlement offer, tensions in the camps have been building. Partly, this is because of rumors and misinformation about the nature of the offer itself. It is also due to intimidation by groups militantly opposed to resettlement who insist that the only acceptable solution is return to Bhutan.

“People feel insecure,” said a young man. “If others hear you are looking for other options than repatriation, they will condemn you as not favoring repatriation, or diluting the prospects for repatriation. Others will accuse you of having no love for the country.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Nepalese government to prosecute intimidators who threaten or harm those who exercise their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and association.

“Before any solutions can be achieved, Nepal must provide sufficient security in the camps to enable refugees to express their opinions and exchange information freely,” said Frelick.

The report discusses the possible solutions to this protracted refugee situation and the choices the refugees now face.

“To be effective, the US resettlement offer cannot operate in isolation,” said Frelick. “The Bhutanese refugees need genuine choices.”

This requires a three-pronged strategy. First, resettlement should be a real option for as many refugees as want it. This means that other countries should join in a coordinated effort to maximize the number of resettlement places. Bhutanese refugees living outside the camps in Nepal and India should also be eligible. Nepal should cooperate on the resettlement option, in particular, by issuing exit permits without delay to refugees accepted for resettlement.

Second, Nepal should grant citizenship to those refugees who express a preference for local integration over resettlement or repatriation. Finally, the United States, India and other countries should redouble their efforts to persuade Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate to do so under conditions that are compatible with human rights law.

“The possibility that many refugees may now choose other options should make it much easier for Bhutan to accept repatriation,” said Frelick. “Resettlement countries should press Bhutan for a genuinely comprehensive solution to this protracted refugee situation.”

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