The U.S. offer to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees is the first significant movement in 15 years toward resolving one of the worlds most intractable refugee situations. But to be truly effective this offer cannot operate in isolation. The U.S. resettlement offer should be a catalyst for a comprehensive solution to the Bhutanese refugee crisis.247 This requires a three-pronged strategy.
First, given that resettlement is likely to be the only feasible durable solution for the majority of the refugees at the present time, countries other than the U.S. should join in a coordinated effort to maximize the total number of resettlement places available for this refugee population. In addition to more than 100,000 refugees living in the camps in eastern Nepal, as many as 15,000 unregistered Bhutanese refugees live outside the camps in Nepal and another 30,000 live in India. Thus if the U.S. offer to resettle 60,000 stands alone and neither repatriation nor local integration become viable options, the majority of refugees will remain without durable solutions.
While the government of Nepal should continue to demand that the government of Bhutan honor its obligation to permit refugee repatriation, Nepal should not make cooperation with resettlement contingent on the outcome of further rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan.248 As one refugee said, The conclusion [of a new round of bilateral talks] might be that the government of Bhutan prolongs our refugee life by 15 or 20 years, by restarting the verification process. By that time our generation will be ruined totally.249
Nepal should work together with the resettlement countries to ensure that those Bhutanese refugees in its territory who are offered resettlement places are issued exit permits without delay.250 Nepal must respect refugees right to leave the country, in accordance with article 12(2) of the ICCPR, which provides: Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.251
Second, refugees need a real alternative in the form of local integration, including guarantees of freedom of movement and the right to seek a livelihood in Nepal. Those refugees who express a preference for local integration over resettlement should also be given the possibility to acquire Nepalese citizenship.252
For the resettlement program to be truly voluntary, refugees need genuine choices whether to accept the offer of resettlement. Nepals willingness to integrate refugees would give the refugees real options. A refugee said, I am fearful about the future. If they [resettlement countries] will not take us, maybe we are in the street here in Nepal or in India, maybe somewhere else, begging for food.253
Third, the United States and other resettle countries should redouble their efforts to convince Bhutan to allow refugees who want to repatriate to do so under conditions that are compatible with human rights law. The possibility, now, that the majority of Bhutanese refugees currently in Nepal will opt for durable solutions other than repatriation ought to make it that much easier for Bhutan to accept repatriation, and for resettlement countries to press Bhutan for a genuinely comprehensive solution that utilizes all three durable solutions to resolve this protracted refugee situation.
All relevant parties should emphasize to the refugees and the government of Bhutan alike that the options of local integration and third-country resettlement do not extinguish refugees right to return. Rather, refugees are offered these options on humanitarian grounds, to allow them to end their refugee status. Refugees interim choices do not deprive them of their right to return to Bhutan. Equally, no offer of a durable solution, be it local integration in Nepal or resettlement to a third country, extinguishes Bhutans obligations under international law to respect the refugees right to return to Bhutan. Moreover, the options of local integration and third-country resettlement do not extinguish refugees right to have restored to them any housing, land, or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived, and to be compensated for any housing, land, or property that cannot be restored to them.254
To diffuse the current tensions in the camps between the proponents and opponents of resettlement, the U.S. and other resettlement countries should emphasize that the dichotomy between resettlement and the right to return is a false one. A member of the Bhutanese Refugees Durable Solutions Coordination Committee observed:
The resettlement countries should present the refugees with a clear message that their offer of resettlement is not intended to undermine the efforts to realize refugees right to return to their own country. To enforce this message the resettlement countries should bring pressure to bear on the government of Bhutan to respect and protect the fundamental human rights of the remaining ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, and to allow those refugees who wish to repatriate to exercise their right to return. A young refugee man said:
Refugees voiced to Human Rights Watch persistent fears that Bhutan might use the resettlement offer as a pretext to force its remaining ethnic Nepali citizens to leave the country. One refugee said, Government officials in villages are saying to Lhotshampas, Your relatives are going to America, now is the right time to meet them. So they are encouraging people to leave, saying, This is your golden opportunity.257 Another refugee said, Subdivision officers are going to Lhotshampas, saying to them, Your relatives are going to America, why are you still here?258 Yet another refugee said:
The international community, and in particular the U.S. and other resettlement countries, and those countries who maintain diplomatic relations with Bhutan, must put real pressure on the government of Bhutan to ensure respect for the rights of Bhutans ethnic Nepali population on a non-discriminatory basis, and in particular to ensure that all ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan are protected from arbitrary denationalization.
247 UNHCRs Working Group on Resettlement has emphasized the need for resettlement to be used strategically, that is, in such a way as to maximize its benefits over and above the provision of a durable solution to the resettled refugees. A prime example of the strategic use of resettlement is where it acts as a catalyst to create a comprehensive solution for an entire population of refugees from the same country of origin. UNHCR ExCom, Standing Committee, The Strategic Use of Resettlement, A Discussion Paper prepared by the Working Group on Resettlement, UN Doc. EC/53/SC/CRP.10/Add.1, June 3, 2003, http://www.unhcr.org/excom/EXCOM/3edf57cd4.pdf (accessed February 13, 2007), paras. 9-14. ExCom Conclusion 95 of 2003 [w]elcomesthe report of the Working Group on Resettlement, particularly its important reflections on how this durable solution can be enhanced and used more strategically, including as part of comprehensive durable solutions arrangements and reaffirms the vital role of international resettlement in providing orderly, well targeted durable solutions. UNHCR, ExCom Conclusion 95 (LIV), General Conclusion on International Protection, October 10, 2003, http://www.unhcr.org/excom/EXCOM/3f93aede7.html (accessed February 10, 2007), para. (q). ExCom Conclusion 99 of 2004 [e]ncourages States and UNHCR to put into practice the strategic use of resettlement in a spirit of international burden and responsibility sharing, in conjunction with other durable solutions, especially to resolve protracted refugee situations. UNHCR, ExCom Conclusion 99 (LV), General Conclusion on International Protection, October 8, 2004, http://www.unhcr.org/excom/EXCOM/41750ef74.html (accessed February 10, 2007), para. (x).
248 A new round of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan had been scheduled for November 2006, but they were postponed on the request of the government of Nepal, due to the political developments in Nepal. A new date for the talks has yet to be announced. The government of Nepal has so far insisted that it will not make any decisions about resettlement until after the bilateral talks. Thus while the government of Nepal has given permission to the U.S. to begin planning for a resettlement program, it has not, as yet, given permission for the resettlement program itself. Email from U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu to Human Rights Watch, March 12, 2007; email from U.S. State Department to Human Rights Watch, March 12, 2007; and email from UNHCR-Nepal to Human Rights Watch, March 12, 2007.
249 Human Rights Watch interview (K25), Sanischare camp, November 14, 2006.
250 In 2006 Nepal issued exit permits for sixteen vulnerable Bhutanese refugees who were referred by UNHCR for resettlement to the U.S. and Canada for the purpose of protection. Human Rights Watch interview with Abraham Abraham, UNHCR Representative in Nepal, Kathmandu, November 28, 2006; and Human Rights Watch interview with Rodney Hunter, Political/Economic Officer, U.S. Embassy, Kathmandu, November 9, 2006. In January 2007 UNHCR submitted a request to the government of Nepal for exit permits for another 36 vulnerable refugees who had been offered resettlement places for the purpose of protection, but by mid-March 2007 all 36 refugees had yet to receive exit permits. Email from UNHCR-Nepal to Human Rights Watch, March 12, 2007. Nepal must allow these refugees to exercise their right to leave the country without delay. Moreover, Nepal must also facilitate resettlement for durable solution purposes, in accordance with UNHCRs Multilateral Framework of Understandings on Resettlement, which states that host countries must facilitate the departure of refugees selected for resettlement, including by the timely issuance of exit permits and travel documents, and to avoid taking measures which might impede the process. UNHCR, Convention Plus Core Group on the Strategic Use of Resettlement, Multilateral Framework of Understandings on Resettlement, June 21, 2004, http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/40e409a34.pdf (accessed February 17, 2007), para. 36.
251 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art 12(1). Nepal acceded to the ICCPR on May 14, 1991.
252 Under the agreement reached at the 12th round of bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan and Nepal, Nepal agreed that refugees in category 2 (Bhutanese who emigrated voluntarily) who did not wish to return to Bhutan would be given the option to apply for Nepalese citizenship in accordance with laws of the kingdom of Nepal. Fourteenth Ministerial Joint Committee Meeting, Nepal Bhutan joint press release, May 21, 2003, Annex I: Agreed Position on the Four Categories, http://www.geocities.com/bhutaneserefugees/mjc_press_relese.html (accessed February 10, 2007). Nepal should extend the benefits of this agreement to all Bhutanese refugees who wish to integrate locally in Nepal.
253 Human Rights Watch interview (K33), Khudunabari camp, November 15, 2006.
254 United Nations Principles on Housing and Property Restitution (Pinheiro Principles), endorsed by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, 57th Session, august 11, 2005, http://www.cohre.org/store/attachments/Pinheiro%20Principles.pdf (accessed February 19, 2007), Principle 2.
255 Human Rights Watch group interview with members of the BRDSCC, Damak, November 17, 2006.
256 Human Rights Watch interview (K43), Birtamod, November 18, 2006.
257 Human Rights Watch interview (K24), Sanischare camp, November 14, 2006.
258 Human Rights Watch interview with ethnic Nepali living in Bhutan (K52), details withheld.
259 Human Rights Watch interview (K48), Damak, November 20, 2006.