By John Narayan Parajuli
In one of the most protracted refugee situations in Nepal and also one of the biggest foreign policy failures in 1990s, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to “end the Bhutanese refugee saga once and for all”, according to a senior advisor to the PM.
The strategy consists of pushing for voluntary repatriation, maximum third-country resettlement and eventually finding a local solution to address the continuing statelessness of the remaining Bhutanese refugees.
This new approach appears notable in its inclusion of willingness to find a local solution once two other options are exhausted.
“After pursuing first two options, the remaining refugees will be given a local solution and that they won’t be allowed to remain stateless,” Prime Minister’s Chief Political Advisor Bishnu Rimal quoted the PM as saying. “The PM wants the long-running saga of Bhutanese refugees to come to an end.”
Nepal has hosted over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees since early ’90s in seven camps in eastern Nepal. With the large-scale third-country resettlement underway since 2007, the remaining 15,000 refugees have now been confined to camps in Damak, Jhapa–PM Oli’s electoral constituency.
Since assuming office in October, Oli has displayed willingness to engage in the question of what happens to the remaining refugees after the third-country resettlement is over, officials say. Previous administrations had refused to enter into the subject, insisting that the remaining population return to Bhutan.
“As a former foreign minister who dealt extensively with the Bhutanese refugee issue, Prime Minister Oli is both keenly interested in and deeply knowledgeable about the issue,” said an official at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
PM Oli was instrumental in starting the third-country resettlement programme during his tenure as deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs in 2006-2007–a fact US Ambassador to Nepal Alaina B Teplitz recognised during an event to mark the departure of the 100,000th Bhutanese refugee for resettlement in November last year.
UNHCR officials indicate recent discussions with the government of Nepal as “encouraging”.
“At this point, there is no policy decision taken on this. But I am encouraged by the openness of the discussion with the government about this in the prime minister’s office, in the ministry of foreign affairs and home affairs,” Craig Sanders, outgoing UNHCR representative in Nepal, told the Post earlier this month (read full interview below).
Advocacy from the UNHCR and core group of countries on resettling Bhutanese refugees has helped the PMO crystalise the current strategy, according to informed sources.
The PMO has informally engaged a former senior official of the UNHCR, Bhairaja Pandey, who served as the refugee agency’s representative in Myanmar and Sudan, to help formulate policy options for addressing the fate of the remaining refugees, multiple sources confirmed.
The core group of eight resettlement countries–UK, USA, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway–continue to hold regular consultations with the UNHCR and the government of Nepal.
“The UK’s position is that we hope that Nepal and Bhutan can come to an amicable arrangement regarding the future of those that remain, consistent with their human rights. We would encourage both governments to engage with the UNHCR’s ideas on next steps,” Alison McEwen, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, said in an email.
With resettlement process almost over, UNHCR’s ideas for the next steps are clear: Pursue local integration if voluntary repatriation is not an option.
Both core group of countries and the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva have stepped up advocacy and diplomacy with Thimphu but Bhutan remains non-committal as ever, according to officials. “We will work with the government of Nepal and the international community to find a path to self-sufficiency for the expected 8-10,000 Bhutanese refugees who will not resettle to a third country. The US government will continue to advocate for possible voluntary return to Bhutan for the refugees who wish to return.
We have a collective responsibility to ensure that every Bhutanese refugee has the opportunity to build a new future and pursue happiness,” US Embassy Spokesperson Ineke Stoneham said in a statement.
Resettlement in third-country (total 103,000 as of June)
The United States 87,517
New Zealand 1,009
The United Kingdom 358
The Netherlands 164
‘I am encouraged by the openness of Nepal government to discuss the fate of remaining refugees’
The third-country group resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees is almost coming to a close. While the referral process has been stopped, the process could take until early 2017 to complete. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that about 10,000 refugees will be left behind in camps for various reasons; about two thousand have declined to take part in the resettlement and instead have opted for voluntary repatriation to Bhutan; there are cases of mixed marriages; and, several hundreds have been rejected by recipient countries. With the resettlement window closing, UNHCR has two other durable options that it is pursuing: voluntary repatriation and local integration. Against this backdrop, John Narayan Parajuli spoke with the outgoing UNHCR Nepal Representative Craig Sanders—in the first week of June before he left to take up his new assignment in Geneva—about the end of the resettlement process, the fate of the remaining population and prospects of local integration and repatriation to Bhutan.
So when is the resettlement process for Bhutanese refugees coming to an end?
A: The large-scale resettlement is coming to an end. But I hope there will always be an opportunity for resettlement for some people– through family reunification or through other means. But that’s going to be in a very individualized basis and not group resettlement. We finished most of our referrals at the end of last year. We’re now processing other cases. As you know the departure time is around 18 months. So while we finished our referrals in the December of last year, those people may not depart until the end of this year or sometime in 2017. So, in short, the process is coming to an end. But hopefully, there will always be a small window of resettlements. But it will be in small numbers.
What will happen to the UNHCR presence both in the camps and in Kathmandu once the group resettlement process is over?
A: Well, our interest is to find solutions for everyone, including those who for various reasons are likely to remain behind in Nepal. We have a lot of mixed marriages and we have approximately 2000 people who did not want to pursue resettlement. We have had people who said they want to pursue resettlement but later changed their minds. So there will be a population that will remain behind. And our interest is to see that everyone has a solution. So, in terms of our presence, I think we will try, as much as possible, to stay as long as it takes to complete this process; but there are limitations to this. We look at what’s going on around the world. We’ve been very clear with our stakeholders, our donors, and with government that we cannot keep doing this forever. We need to find a solution for those people who will remain behind.
How many do you expect to, or project to be behind after the major part of this resettlement is over?
A: Our current estimates, I would say, somewhere between 8000 to 10,000 people. By the end of this year, we will reach between 11,000 to 12,000 people that will be in the camps. Today, there are 15,500 in the camps. At some stage the population should stabilise between 8000 to 10,000 people.
Can you give me a sense of category as to who these people are?
A: Of the 8000 to 10,000, around 1500 of that 8 to 10 thousand are people that are what we would call, mixed marriages—people that are in marriages with mostly Nepali nationals or some with Indian nationals and their children. So that’s one group. There’s another group of around 2000 people who have said they aren’t interested in resettling. There are also people who have withdrawn or some people who may not be eligible. For example, if someone has been involved in a case of fraud or if they are trying for a way to bring somebody in. If they get caught doing this, they will not be considered for resettlement. They are not necessarily hard criminals. But Fraud, we take very seriously. If you have committed this, you will not be considered for resettlement.
Are there cases where people have been rejected by recipient countries for other reasons? And what is their number?
A: The rejection rate here has been very low. The Bhutanese are actually very welcomed and they typically have no security issues or other things. But it does sometime happen, if for example someone has been involved in a case of serious domestic violence or has committed a serious crime. In those instances, they may be rejected. Some people may have committed a crime but once they serve their time, they may still be considered for resettlement.
So the other solution is repatriation because some of them obviously want to go back, right?
A: As you know, we have three main durable solutions. One is, they go back to their own countries. Two, they go back to a third country, which in the case of Bhutanese refugees has been the majority. More than 103,000 have been resettled to third countries. Three, their local settlement or local integration in the country where they have sought asylum. Over 2000 people have expressed interest to voluntarily return to Bhutan, if the Bhutanese government is willing to accept them.
And what has been the response of the Bhutanese Government.
A: We have been stepping up our advocacy and diplomacy with the government of Bhutan on this issue. At this point, we do not have green light but the conversation is still going on. The dialogue is there, the diplomacy is there, and we are in talks with Bhutan about this.
And local integration?
A: In my three years here in Nepal, I’ve been having this discussion basically since day one with the government of Nepal. At this point, there is no policy decision taken on this. But I am encouraged by the openness of the discussion with the government about this in the prime minister’s office, in foreign affairs, and in home affairs. It’s clear that there will be some population remaining behind. What will happen to those people? Whether they should stay in a camp, or move some place else. These are the things we’re discussing. I, personally, think that it would be better to see that people are allowed to move out and pursue their own lives. Their lives should not be confined to a former refugee camp. They should be allowed, if they wish, to get out and to get on with their lives. This means they are given things like the right to work and the right to live where they wish. We’re ready to work with the government on this and work with the refugees on this. I think that would be the best solution.
Sometime back, the UNCHR had floated a Community-based Development Programme (CBDP), which was aimed at local integration at some point, addressing both host communities and the refugees. What happened to that program?
A: Regrettably, three years ago, after a lot of work went into this with the government, partners, development partners, the government at that time rejected the project. Now, three years later, the global environment has changed a lot. Look what’s happened across the world in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for obtaining the support along with the resources we would need to implement a project like this is lost. So, even if there was a wish, the possibility of reviving the project is very slim.
Because of funding?
A: Because there are other priorities, the opportunity was missed. I think we had an opportunity three years ago, but the decision at that time was to stop it.
What would have the program entailed for the host communities?
A: In UNHCR, it’s always been our policy to locate refugee camps in isolation to surrounding communities. It has never been our approach on this.With our limited resources, we do have limited resources but with our limited resources, we have tried to invest in the surrounding community. We know they have been affected by the presence of refugees and refugee camps so we have built water systems, schools, health centres, that served the local population. But also to extent, serve the refugee population. where they can go. We have done that for many years and we have a number of projects that we can point to on this. The question now is what will happen to the remaining population because we’re coming to a point where the population is stabilising. will be, what will happen to, we’re coming to a point now, where the population will stabilise. For the past 7 or 8 years, it’s been a very dynamic and fluid situation. The refugee population has been declining steadily, which brings with it very dramatic changes inside the community. when you see, when you have fifty, sixty, seventy thousand people opposed to a hundred thousand people. The numbers being brought down from 100,000 to 15,000 people today has an effect in many ways. For us, i think to support, we’ve lost a lot of economies of scale that come with a larger population. So, providing education, healthcare, sanitation and other basic services, has become much more costly Per-capita because the total population has been reduced. There are also of course a lot of psychosocial things that have come up with the departure of refugees. Some of it is good, because people have left.but others are being, i think it’s fair to say, many people feel or some people feel, But some people are worried to see the departure of their community as some people go abroad. It must be quite stressful.
I’m still trying to understand what we’ve lost in the terms of CBDP being shelved. What kind of investment was being planned, bottom and upper cap that we’re discussing?
A: It was approximately a 34-million dollar, multi-year project involving several UN agencies.Approximately, a 34-million dollar project,multi-year, several UN agencies. We were going to be investing in education, maternal-child care, health care and infrastructure with an environmental rehabilitation component to it. So there were many aspects to this. Indeed, the hope was, by investing in the host community we will be raising the level of services but also, creating the conditions eventually that the refugees themselves would be able to access these services. As of now, we have what we call a parallel system. Host community living on one side of the road goes to one health centre whereas the refugee on the other side of the road goes to a refugee health centre. Same thing with school, child in the camp will go to a refugee school, and child on the other side of the road, a Nepali will go to a local school. We’d like to see these barriers break down and actually allow refugees to be able to access them. And we’d be willing to support this; we’ve always been willing to support this. It’s not just to give it all to the government of Nepal. We want to support but in a more rational way, than what has been the case.
Coming to the case of mixed marriages, is it certain that they’ll be left behind or will the process take longer for them to go to a third country?
A: The, so-called, mixed marriage case does bring a certain bureaucratic complication. First, you must be able to show you have a marriage certificate. The person that is married, for example a Bhutanese male refugee marrying a Nepali woman, must have a citizenship certificatewith which she can issue a passport and travel.and with that she will be able to get passport, she’ll be able to travel. So there are a lot of complications that come with these kinds of situations. It does take more time, in some instances, as we all know these kind of bureaucratic situations take a long time to resolve.