On October 2, 2006, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Ellen Sauerbrey, announced that the United States would be willing to resettle up to 60,000 of the Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal.157 In light of the protracted nature of the Bhutanese refugee crisis with no other durable solutions in sight, this offer of resettlement was a welcome development that promises to alleviate the plight of a substantial number of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.158
The announcement has sparked considerable debate amongst the refugees. Some are overjoyed to be offered the option of resettlement, while others are wary, having seen too many promises of a solution come to nothing over the course of the past 15 years. Yet others are not willing to contemplate any durable solution other than repatriation to Bhutan; some people in this category are suspicious about the motivations behind the resettlement offer.
Clearly, in a population of more than 100,000 people, differences of opinion are only to be expected; the Bhutanese refugees are no more homogeneous in their views than any other group of that size would be. But interviews with refugees in the camps showed that beyond the normal diversity of opinion, there are a number of distinct but related problems that urgently need to be addressed.
First, no reliable and precise information is currently available to the refugees about the offer of resettlement. As a result, there is much confusion and anxiety. On the one hand, there are fears among the refugees that the offer does not represent a real commitment to actually conduct resettlement, but is only a suggestion, and might be withdrawn at any time and without warning. An elderly refugee woman said, Is the American promise just talk, or a real promise?159
Other refugees are under the impression that this is not so much an offer as a command, and that refugees will have no choice in the matter. Tellingly, the U.S. offer of resettlement is frequently referred to in terms of the U.S. taking 60,000 refugees, and some refugees are afraid that they will indeed be taken to the U.S. even against their will. A refugee teenager said, Our first priority is to go to Bhutan, but we hear the news that the U.S. will take us.160
The refugees have a desperate need for information, but there is nowhere they can turn for answers to their many questions. One 43-year-old refugee said, Nobody has informed us. We are hearing rumors only. No authority has met the refugees.161 Another refugee stated, Nothing is known clearly, no proposal is brought in the camp clearly and openly by any of the agencies.162
The lack of information concerns all aspects of the resettlement proposal. Thus, for example, refugees are unclear about the eligibility criteria for resettlement, with many expressing fears that only young, healthy, and educated refugees would qualify, leading to the separation of family members. One refugee asked, Will they only take the educated refugees and leave the others behind?163
Refugees also have many questions about the conditions they would face in the U.S. in terms of housing, health care, education, and employment. A refugee woman spoke for many when she reeled off a long list of questions: If these countries are taking us there, what are the terms and conditions? Where will we be kept? Will we be given a field to work? Can we also work in the factories? Will the huts look like the huts here?164 Some refugees were uncertain about their rights in the United States or other resettlement countries. Speculation in the camps and inaccurate reports in the local media fueled this confusion. One refugee man dressed in traditional Hindu clothing expressed it in the question, Will I be allowed to put the tikka on my forehead in America? I have heard from the media that although there is supposed to be protection of minority rights, that many do not follow these rights in America.165
Of all the questions refugees have, perhaps the one question they want to see addressed most urgently relates to their legal status in the United States. Having been stripped of their Bhutanese citizenship, and having been unable to assert any of their civil and political rights for the past 15 years, the refugees are anxious to be granted citizenship by whichever country offers them a durable solution. As a refugee woman asked, When we go there, will we still be refugees, or will we be given the right of these countries? If I have to go there as a refugee, why can I not stay here?166
But refugees concerns run even deeper than a grant of citizenship. The injustice of being denationalized is deeply ingrained in refugees minds, and they are loath to ever have it happen to them again. A refugee asked, In the previous days our ancestors were invited by the Bhutanese to go settle there. And then they expelled us. Why wouldnt the U.S. do the same thing and invite us only to expel us later?167 It is a question that is on many refugees minds. An elderly woman said, Will we have the same rights as U.S. citizens? Will they not evict us after 15, 20 years, like they did in Bhutan? Our forefathers went to Bhutan, and we were evicted. We fear that the U.S. will do that too.168
Due to the lack of information about the resettlement offer, there is a certain level of suspicion about the motivations behind the offer. Some refugees are wary, thinking that the U.S. might want to exploit them in some way or that it wants to use them in pursuit of some other geopolitical plan or agenda:
Equally, refugees want reassurance that a decision on their part to accept the offer of resettlement does not extinguish their right to return to Bhutan. Despite Bhutans intransigence of the past 15 years, refugees have not given up hope that one day they will be allowed to return to Bhutan. Some refugees now fear that they are being asked to choose between a future in the U.S. and their right to return to their own country. A refugee said, When the statement came that the U.S. will not just take the strong, educated people, people were interested [in the resettlement offer]. Even then, people were afraid. Can we still go back?170
157 UNHCR Spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis, Nepal: Generous US Resettlement Offer May Help Break Bhutanese Deadlock, UNHCR Briefing Notes, October 6, 2006, http://www.unhcr.org/news/NEWS/45262b462.html (accessed February 14, 2006).
158 A number of other countries have also indicated their willingness to resettle smaller numbers of Bhutanese refugees, including Australia and Canada. Ibid.
159 Human Rights Watch interview (K17), Goldhap camp, November 12, 2006.
160 Human Rights Watch interview (B63), Beldangi II camp, November 17, 2006.
161 Human Rights Watch interview (K15), Beldangi II-extension camp, November 11, 2006.
162 Human Rights Watch interview (K25), Sanischare camp, November 14, 2006.
163 Human Rights Watch interview (B15), Goldhap camp, November 12, 2006.
164 Human Rights Watch interview (K20), Beldangi I camp, November 13, 2006.
165 Human Rights Watch interview (B51), Timai camp, November 16, 2006.
166 Human Rights Watch interview (K20), Beldangi I camp, November 13, 2006.
167 Human Rights Watch interview (B69), Beldangi I camp, November 19, 2006.
168 Human Rights Watch interview (K17), Goldhap camp, November 12, 2006.
169 Human Rights Watch interview (K59), Kalimpong, India, November 22, 2006.
170 Human Rights Watch interview (B40), Khudunabari camp, November 15, 2006. The interviewee was referring to a letter by Ellen Sauerbrey, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, published in a monthly refugee newsletter, which stated: It is important to note that we select applicants for our [resettlement] program on the basis of applicants needs we do not make selections based upon level of education, job-related skills or other such criteria. Ellen Sauerbrey, US Motivation Is Humanitarian, The Bhutan Reporter, vol. II, no. 23, November 2006, p. 2. The letter helped to allay a number of refugees fears.