Opportunity or Threat: The US Resettlement Offer for the Bhutanese Refugees
Bhutan’s State media on
21 February 2008, the Bhutanese security forces arrested eight people from the
Nepali speaking minority in
They were detained in connection with a series of bombings apparently aimed at
disrupting the forthcoming elections. The Bhutanese security forces claimed
that the detained persons are members of the Communist Party of Bhutan
(Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) — a group blamed for 4 February 2008 explosion in
southwest and four other blasts across the country in January 2008. The Human
Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB) on the other hand claimed that the Bhutanese
security forces also brutally killed four persons belonging to Nepali minority
and the whereabouts of the eight arrested persons are not known.
The Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) (BCP) and the
Force (BTF) are two increasingly visible armed groups. Both group’s primary
political goal is the return to
of the more than 100,000 refugees from
who have lived in refugee camps in eastern
since the early 1990s.
hold the first elections on 24
March 2008 and the members of the Nepali community will be disenfranchised and
further marginalized as a result.
operations also coincide with allegations from exiled Bhutanese refugee groups
that the Bhutanese authorities are applying increasing pressure on an already
oppressed Nepali speaking Bhutanese minority. They claim that conditions have deteriorated to the point that many of
speaking minority are preparing to leave.
it is perhaps too early to predict exactly how events will unfold, the
international community would do well to be concerned about rising ethnic
tension. One clear risk is that further armed resistance will provoke a
stronger security response from the Bhutanese government. If
use the ‘fight against terror’ as a cover for a wider political project it
would not be the first government to do so.
The International Community:
Any assessment of the prospects of further
refugee flows from
should be examined in the context of the announcement by the
in October 2006 to resettle 60,000 refugees. Several other countries, including
– known as the Core
Working Group -, expressed similar interests.
The resettlement offer has already brought
to the surface existing tensions within the camps and in
have led to violence. While many individual refugees see the offer as an
opportunity, influential political groupings amongst the Bhutanese refugee
community vehemently oppose third country resettlement. Many political groups
have responded negatively to the resettlement offer. They see it as a
conspiracy to undercut the goal of return to
and to undermine the will to seek the fundamental political changes in
would make return possible.
The BCP-MLM and BTF are increasingly
exploiting the democratic parties’ failure to achieve peaceful solutions by
launching a campaign that includes intimidation, violence and political exploitation.
This already tense situation is framed by the breakdown of general
the collapse of the rule of law and diminishing donor support to the camps.
resolution of the Bhutanese refugee issue is tightly bound to
India. However, for the last eighteen years
has insisted that the refugee issue was
and remains a purely bilateral issue between
This is entirely mendacious:
have no shared border.
put the fleeing Bhutanese refugees on trucks and lorries, dumped inside Nepalese
territory and ever since protected
position continues to be of concern. As recently as 9 June 2007 the Indian
Foreign Minister Pranav Mukharjee unhelpfully stated that if: ‘the refugees in
get back to
there will be demographic imbalance in the region.' The rise of
as a geo-strategic power
weakens the hand of the international community still further. No government is
prepared to expend valuable political influence with
on an issue that has little
or no discernible direct interest for the concerned state.
’s defence of ethnic cleansing and the
resulting refugee issue has been well organised, effective and underwritten by
Bhutan’s success in
avoiding international community pressure has been an argument that the issue
is a bilateral issue between
As will be seen below,
a largely compliant opponent. International political will has been further
diluted by division: despite evidence of ethnic-cleansing, donors to
been and continue to be unwilling to use development assistance as a tool to
refugees have looked to
to protect their interests.
response has been lamentable. During the democratic period the policy toward
the refugees was confused, inconsistent and frequently incomprehensible. Since
the ‘people’s movement’ domestic governance has rapidly disappeared. A coherent
or effective response to the refugee situation from
is at best unlikely.
US and Other Western
Core Working Group focuses largely on the humanitarian dimension of the refugee
issue. But they remain publicly sensitive to accusations of giving in to ethnic
cleansing. On 23 June 2007, responding to NGO criticism on this stand, the US
declared that the “Core Working Group on Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal” is
committed to finding “a comprehensive and sustainable resolution”.
9th January 2008, a refugee resettlement processing center for the
Bhutanese refugees by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was
opened in Damak in Jhapa district,
Nepal. This haste to proceed with
resettlement to the
the lack of visible efforts by the
to press for a comprehensive
solution has been taken by Bhutanese refugees as a symbol as to where US
(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees):
role of UNCHR has always been of concern. UNHCR unconditionally welcomed the
despite the lack of provisions on international principle. The visit of ranking
UNHCR representative Antonio Guterres to the region in May 2007 was no less
helpful because there was no focus on repatriation: only on resettlement.
UNHCR’s public position has compromised its neutrality. Well-placed contacts in
that UNHCR is keen to expedite a solution at any cost. Refugees recognise this
as the de facto policy. On 3
May 2007, the activists of the CPB (MLM) prevented representatives of the UNHCR
from holding consultations with Bhutanese refugees at Beldangi camp regarding
their resettlement in the
Core Working Group members defends their position arguing that the refugees can
no longer be held hostage to bilateral negotiations between Nepal and Bhutan
that in eighteen years have achieved nothing. They have a point.
would argue that resettlement is a generous offer but should be part of a
comprehensive solution. Moreover ACHR would argue that the resettlement offer
has created an opportunity for progress toward such a solution as the problem
is now clearly international.
resettlement offer made in isolation of a wider solution carries risk. The
armed Maoist movement in
may gain strength from the offer and
security operations in response may add impetus to new flow of refugees out of
and drawn to
by visions of a new life in
The risk of the international community resettlement offer is that is it likely
to increase the pull factors from
when strong push factors have
been working overtime.
militancy is of real concern; not only could it affect the refugees’ chances of
resettlement, it could potentially promote cross border and indeed regional
insurgency along the trajectory of
has compelling security reasons to
reconsider a change of tack.
with the rest of the international community should bring pressure to bear on
permit the refugees to return home in safety and dignity and to end
discrimination against its ethnic Nepali citizens.
Core Working Group, for its part, has to be more transparent about its wider
strategy and reassure those who care about the refugees and the remaining
Nepali speakers in
that they have their best interests at heart and demonstrate that they are not
going to be party to ethnic cleansing by