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(Washington, DC) - Violent clashes this week resulting in two deaths in Nepal’s Bhutanese refugee camps underscore the need for the Nepali police to protect refugees from mob violence and ensure their right to peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The death of a third Bhutanese refugee in a confrontation with Indian police forces this week indicates that all sides must exercise restraint before tensions escalate further with even more loss of life.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the escalation of violence in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal and along the Indian border, which some refugees have been attempting to cross in a march to Bhutan.

On May 27, a group claiming to be members of the Bhutanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) attacked refugees who have voiced support for a US offer to resettle Bhutanese refugees. The attackers beat at least one refugee leader and destroyed his and several other huts in Beldangi II camp in eastern Nepal. Similar attacks occurred in another camp, Beldangi I, where several huts, including the camp administration office, were also burnt down.

In response to the violence, a contingent of the Nepal Armed Police opened fire on the mob and reportedly killed a teenage boy. By some accounts, police shot a second teenager on Monday who died later that day in hospital.

“Nepali police need to protect the Bhutanese refugees and their right to peacefully express their views on resettlement or return,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy director of Human Rights Watch. “Factions of Bhutanese refugees divided over the resettlement issue should reflect on the tragic loss of these young lives and conclude that fighting each other will not solve their plight.”

Refugees or others who resort to violence and attack refugees with whom they disagree must be arrested and prosecuted by Nepali authorities, Human Rights Watch said. At the same time, the police should avoid excessive force in maintaining order.

While a US offer to resettle 60,000 or more Bhutanese refugees has given hope to many of the 106,000 refugees living in Nepal, some refugees see the resettlement offer as undercutting the prospects for repatriation and have increasingly resorted to threats and violence to prevent other refugees from advocating for solutions other than return to Bhutan. In a report published earlier this month, “Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in India and Nepal,” Human Rights Watch warned that tensions in the camps are growing.

“Although there is no question that Bhutanese refugees have a right to return, they also have the right to make choices on essential issues like resettlement without threats, intimidation or violence” said Frelick.

In a related development, a group of Bhutanese refugees this week attempted a march to return to Bhutan. Bhutan and Nepal are separated by a strip of land belonging to India. Indian police forces clashed with the refugees at the Mechi River bridge that serves as the crossing with Nepal. Refugees pelted the police with stones, and Indian police fired on the demonstrators, killing one and injuring others. The standoff ended after local leaders talked with Indian authorities who have agreed to forward their demands to the relevant officials in New Delhi.

Repatriation of Bhutanese refugees must be accompanied by the restoration of rights, and should include monitoring and assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. At the present time, none of the conditions that would allow them to return safely and in dignity have been met, Human Rights Watch said.

“Groups of Bhutanese refugees should not resort to violence in exercising their right of return, and the Indian police should also act with restraint and compassion for the refugees,” Frelick said.

The Bhutanese refugee crisis began in 1991 when Bhutan started to expel ethnic Nepalis, a policy that resulted in the expulsion of one-sixth of the country’s population. So far, in complete violation of international law, Bhutan has not allowed a single refugee to return. Consequently, the refugees have endured years in cramped camps with no prospects for solutions, conditions that have led to domestic violence and other social problems that have come after protracted periods in closed camps.

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, Human Rights Watch said.

At the same time, the United States and other resettlement countries should expand an information campaign in the camps to reiterate that the choice of resettlement is voluntary and does not in any way extinguish the right of return. The countries offering resettlement need to provide detailed information about the rights and benefits for refugees that choose to resettle in their countries. Together with the rest of the international community, particularly India, these countries should bring pressure to bear on Bhutan to permit the refugees to return home in safety and dignity and to end discrimination against its ethnic Nepali citizens.

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