Bhutan may profit from evocative tourist images of an isolated cloud kingdom whose people live in serenity and colorful traditional dress, but for many Bhutanese it's far from idyllic. It's a place where citizens can't get a government job, buy or sell land, or open a business without a police-issued card attesting that the bearer is not "anti-national." But it's still home - or at least it should be - for the more than 100,000 Bhutanese citizens expelled in the early 1990s.
The Bhutanese refugees, ethnic Nepalis cleansed from the remote mountain kingdom in the early 1990s, have been warehoused ever since in overcrowded refugee camps in eastern Nepal with no progress toward a resolution of their plight. They have insisted on their right to return to Bhutan; the Bhutanese government has refused to allow them back. Fifteen rounds of bilateral talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan have led nowhere. The impasse has lasted more than 16 years.
But a new player has entered the scene: the United States has offered to resettle 60,000 or more of the Bhutanese refugees.
The U.S. wants to break the impasse of the bilateral talks, perhaps out of worry that years of pent-up anger and frustration could soon explode, or maybe just because it is tired of pouring humanitarian aid into the bottomless sinkhole of refugee camps.
Overwhelmingly, Bhutanese refugees say their first choice is to go back home, as is their right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as binding international treaties signed by Bhutan, enshrines the right of people to return to their country. During this long period of exile, however, Bhutan has not allowed a single refugee back.
Repatriation is generally regarded as the best option for refugees - but only when the conditions that caused them to flee have changed enough that they can return safely. The government's treatment of the ethnic Nepalis who still live in Bhutan, however, shows such conditions do not exist. They remain a marginalized group in constant fear that they too could be evicted.
"It is not possible to say that we want human rights for ethnic Nepalis. It is very dangerous to say these things," an ethnic Nepali living in Bhutan told Human Rights Watch. "They will definitely take away your No Objection Certificate [the police-issued permit]. They might even take away your citizenship card."
Despite their right of return, under present circumstances Bhutanese refugees in Nepal still can't go home.
So, they continue their long wait. Without permission to work or farm, and dependent on international hand-outs for their survival, the refugees experience the range of social ills associated with protracted camp life, including depression, and domestic and sexual violence.
"After finishing their studies, young people don't get jobs. They have no work, they are idle," a refugee at the Beldangi II camp said. "They fall into bad company, and they drink a lot. They get violent."
The US resettlement offer has provided a ray of hope for some refugees. Parents can finally envision a brighter future for their children. But for others, the offer looks like a ruse to undercut the goal of return to Bhutan and to undermine the will to seek the fundamental political changes in Bhutan that would make return possible. These refugees cannot bear the idea that resettlement might relieve Bhutan of its moral and legal obligations, and that their own dreams of return to their homeland might be delayed that much longer.
Some have started to threaten and intimidate refugees who speak out in favor of resettlement; in late May, a mob attacked refugees who have supported resettlement, beating one of their leaders, burning their huts, and chasing some resettlement supporters out of the camps. In the ensuing violence, Nepali police forces shot and killed two of the rioters. The anger of the opponents of resettlement appears to be misplaced: resettlement does not extinguish the right of return. Those moving to the United States could still insist on their right to go back to Bhutan, and might even be better placed here to advocate for change in Bhutan.
At this critical moment, the United States and India, among other governments, need to pressure Bhutan to fulfill its obligations under international law and allow refugees to return in conditions of safety and dignity. But first, the government of Nepal must provide security in the camps to allow all refugees to make their own choices, free from threats and violence. The refugees who want to hold out for return deserve steadfast international support, but those who can wait no longer should be allowed to choose resettlement now.
Bill Frelick, Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch, researched and edited the report "Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India." He has worked in the refugee field for nearly 25 years. He previously was the director of Amnesty International USA's refugee program and before that directed the U.S. Committee for Refugees and edited The World Refugee Survey.