Government decides to allow Bhutanese refugees to do businessOfficials rule out immediate plans to register Tibetan refugees and issue identification cards to them.
A soon to be implemented government decision is going to allow the remaining refugees from Bhutan to obtain permanent account number (PAN) cards, to do small-scale businesses and pursue higher education in Nepal.
PAN cards are a must to carry out small businesses in Nepal, and this facility will be extended to the Bhutanese refugees, according to officials.
“A Cabinet meeting some two months back had decided to allow Bhutanese refugees to do businesses on a small scale so that they can sustain,” said Home Ministry spokesperson Phadindra Mani Pokhrel. “The decision is yet to be implemented though.”
The decision to allow the remaining Bhutanese refugees to do business and obtain PAN cards will be carried out along with the process of renewing their refugee cards, according to multiple government officials familiar with the development.
According to the District Administration Office, Jhapa, where the remaining Bhutanese refugees are currently living, the number of Bhutanese refugees stands at a little over 6,000. Most of them have obtained refugee cards after the third country settlement programme was stopped in 2016-2017.
A total of 113,500 individuals were resettled in the United States, Canada and other countries under the third country settlement programme.
After the settlement programme came to a halt, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other humanitarian agencies, including the World Food Programme, stopped providing food and direct cash support to the refugees who remained in Nepal. The Nepal government has been taking care of them since.
“In order to lessen the refugees’ financial burden, the government has decided to allow them to do certain kinds of businesses,” another Home Ministry official said. The Cabinet has already specified the nature of small and local businesses they can carry out. The details have yet to be shared by the ministry.
Around 6,365 Bhutanese refugees are still living in Nepal in two camps at Beldangi and Sanischare of Jhapa district, according to the UN refugee agency.
“The time has come to renew their refugee identity cards, which we do every five years,” Chomendra Neupane, assistant chief district officer of Jhapa, who also looks after refugee issues in the district, told the Post over the phone.
“However, the Cabinet decision has yet to be communicated to the local administration office,” Neupane said.
Once implemented, the kin of Bhutanese refugees will have their cards renewed and some late comers, who do not have refugee identification cards and whose number stands at around 429, will get new refugee cards. The identification cards will pave the way for them to pursue higher education, open bank accounts, conduct businesses and avail of other services as long as they live in Nepal.
There, however, are no such plans at present to register Tibetan refugees and distribute identification cards to them, officials say.
The process of registering and providing identification cards to Tibetan refugees was stopped in 1995.
Home Ministry officials said though the government has decided to make it easier for Bhutanese refugees to do businesses and open bank accounts in Nepal, this is not part of any process of their local assimilation, which has been talked about in the recent past.
“We are considering some provisions for Bhutanese refugees but it does not mean their local assimilation or integration into the Nepali society,” Sagar Mani Pokhrel, who looks after refugee affairs at the Home Ministry, told the Post. Apart from this, the status quo of Bhutanese refugees remains, said Pokhrel.
The Jhapa local administration, with the support of the Insurance Board of Nepal, has brought interested Bhutanese refugees under the insurance coverage to facilitate their access to health facilities and their children’s access to education.
Apart from Bhutanese and Tibetan refugees, Nepal is also home to some urban refugees from Myanmar and those from as far as Nigeria.
Nepal has always faced diplomatic and internal challenges while dealing with refugees from Bhutan and Tibet. The population of Tibetan refugees in Nepal stands at 12,540.
Since Nepal is not party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the country is hosting the Bhutanese and Tibetans as well as other urban refugees who figure in some hundreds on humanitarian grounds, according to officials from several government agencies.
There are also calls from some diplomatic missions to provide similar privileges to the Tibetan refugees. Since many of the Tibetan refugees are involved in businesses, they do not need such help but some may need a PAN card, another Home Ministry official said.
But a Tibetan refugee leader told the Post that they are facing several problems in doing business because the government has not allowed them to do business legally by denying them both the PAN card and refugee card.
“Legally we are not allowed to do any business but there is no obstruction to doing small business. However, due to the lack of access, we are not allowed to operate large-scale businesses inside Nepal,” the refugee leader said.
“Since the government has not issued PAN cards to us, we are unable to register businesses. A lot of our friends are facing hassles. A large number of community members are still without refugee cards, which means they are unable to open bank accounts, be admitted to schools and colleges and to do jobs.”
The leader also complained that despite repeated requests, successive governments have not addressed their grievances.
Human rights defenders say Nepal should address and look after the genuine grievances of the refugees living inside the country.
The issue of Bhutanese refugees has almost settled because many of them have been resettled in third countries and almost all those in Nepal have obtained refugee cards but the plights of Tibetan and Rohingya refugees continue, said Mahamunishwor Acharya, president of Nepal Human Rights Organization.
“Tibetan and Rohingya refugees are living in very poor conditions. If someone seeks asylum, the government should ensure their safe and dignified stay in the country, as is the international practice. As a party to many international treaties and pacts on human rights, this is part of our obligations,” said Acharya, who is also fighting cases concerning refugees in different courts of Nepal.
“Now that the issue of Bhutanese refugees has taken course, Tibetan and Rohingya refugees’ issue should also be taken into consideration by the Nepal government to ensure their dignified stay.”
A paragraph in an earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Nepal is party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The error has been corrected.