A humanitarian issueInternational community should put pressure on Bhutan to uphold the refugees’ right to return home
Having resigned to their fate as refugees in limbo for over two decades, 104,000 of the displaced Bhutanese have finally been resettled in eight countries. While the larger chunk—more than 94,000—have made their way to the United States, the remaining 10,000 have found refuge in other countries. Despite this considerable resettlement, 12,000 refugees are still languishing in camps in Nepal, desperately looking for ways to return to their homeland, Bhutan.
More than 1,641 refugees presently living in camps on a prima facie basis are demanding refugee identity. The Right to Return to One’s Homeland (with regard to refugees) is a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The intent behind this right is to facilitate the return and re-entering of people to their country of origin.
However, Bhutan does not appear to acknowledge this Universal Declaration, and has repeatedly and vehemently denied the return of its long-lost citizens. Adding further insult to injury, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay termed the refugees “non-nationals and illegal immigrants” in response to a US senator’s letter appealing to the dilemma and plight of the refugees. According to him, the camps had been infiltrated by Maoist militants intent on overthrowing the Bhutanese monarch. Such an adverse reaction cannot easily be overlooked. Above all, this official declaration on the part of the Shangri-La nation is, no doubt, the last nail in the proverbial coffin of hope—not only for those resettled, but also for the small number left behind in the camps who have been raising a hue and cry for years.
The United States has urged Nepal to consider settling 10,000 of the remaining 12,000 Bhutanese refugees locally. In the same tone, during an official visit to Nepal in September 2016, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal, asked Nepali Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat whether Nepal would allow the remaining Bhutanese refugees to integrate locally through naturalisation in Nepal. Mahat maintained the stance that Nepal is in favor of honorable repatriation of the remaining refugees to Bhutan, rather than allowing integration to occur. The prevalent political opinion is that awarding Nepali citizenships to Bhutanese refugees might open a ‘Pandora’s box’ against the backdrop of a rising number of asylum seekers looking for safe haven in Nepal.
Meanwhile, departing from its provision of food and nutrition to Bhutanese refugees since 1992, the World Food Programme (WFP) has recently started limiting food supplies. A press release recently issued by the WFP office stated that the WFP would continue its support only to some 3,100 refugees (including elderly, disabled persons and single mothers). It also stated that with the surplus funds available, monthly rations of 10 kilograms of rice to each of the remaining 7,700 refugees could be provided. This ration amounts to an equivalent of 2,100 calories per person per day. According to the National Health Service (NHS), the average male adult needs approximately 2,500 calories per day to keep his weight constant, while the average adult female needs 2,000 calories.
Need of the hour
Many of the remaining refugees in the camps are elderly, and their ultimate desire is to return to their own homeland. Bhutan is where their forefathers and families lived and toiled. Moreover, many families are in dire need of reuniting with their near and dear ones whom they were forced to leave behind.
This protracted refugee crisis has continued for more than two decades without a solution in sight. Therefore, the time has come for the government of Nepal, refugee aid agencies, and international communities to act upon this issue of human interest. The international community—primarily the US and other resettlement countries, and those nations that maintain diplomatic ties with Bhutan—must put judicious pressure on the government of Bhutan to uphold and protect the fundamental human rights of the remaining refugees who wish to return. In the interim, the Nepal government should also allow the remaining camp dwellers to integrate locally by ensuring that all refugees who are entitled to Nepali citizenship under Nepal’s Citizenship Act 2006, including children born to a refugee mother and a Nepali father, receive the necessary administrative assistance to complete the formalities for acquiring citizenship.
For now, as a measure of temporary relief, all the resettled Bhutanese refugees should rise above their comfort and start fundraising from their end to support the WFP with financial aid. A small philanthropic step on the part of all those who have successfully transitioned their lives to greener pastures is the need of the hour.
Niroula, a former Bhutanese refugee, is a news coordinator at the Bhutanese refugee-run Bhutan News Service in New Hampshire, US