Vidhyapati Mishra’s opinion piece published by The Kathmandu Post.

For over two decades, Nepal has been hosting thousands of Bhutanese nationals, who were forcefully evicted from the country in early 1990s. However, it was only in 2006 that the Government of Nepal agreed to verify and issue them refugee identity cards. The joint verification team comprising representatives from the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) conducted official registration between 2006 to 2008 for issuing photo identity cards for over 100,000 Bhutanese citizens, languishing in UN-managed refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang. One of the achievements of the official registration is the ongoing third country resettlement. Nearly 60,000 refugees registered have already left for various eight countries in the West to begin a new life. The International Organization for Migration and UNHCR are processing around 50,000 refugees for relocation.

Initially, both the government and UNHCR were convinced that the registration process would grant refugee status to all asylum seekers from Bhutan, including Indian and Nepali women married to refugees in camps. But, it was not to be. Some individuals, who missed the official counting intentionally or otherwise, are now struggling to get their status recognised by the government. These include new arrivals from Bhutan, who were expelled recently from the country or released from jails. Now, they have come to the refugee camps to join their family members and friends. The local authority even claims that the ongoing resettlement process has lured some of them and this is why they left the country or married their loved ones from Nepal and India. It might be true that people can be attracted towards resettling in developed countries through marriage chains, but to dare to leave the country to become a refugee for this is unconvincing. It is the right of all asylum seekers to get their status defined so that they don’t remain stateless, and even qualify for any solution of the refugee issue, including third country resettlement and dignified repatriation to the homeland.

Representing some 3,000 asylum seekers, 12 women including two Indians and a Nepali married to Bhutanese refugees, started a fast on November 15 that ended on November 26. Their demands were genuine. They wanted the government to recognise their status and issue them with refugee identity cards, which is a must for all kinds of facilities, including ration, primary health care and education for their children from the UNHCR and its implementing partners. The local government authority of Jhapa has also acknowledged their demands as genuine, but is helpless in fulfilling them, stating that verification of these people needs a Cabinet decision. The excuse offered is that the local administration has already forwarded the cases for proper action to the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it is beyond local capacity to decide on registration of the pending asylum seekers. The ministry has remained silent in this regard.

On the other hand, the UNHCR seems more sympathetic to the demands of asylum seekers. Based on humanitarian grounds, the UNHCR has been reinstating that no individuals should remain stateless, and that the status of the asylum seekers be recognised by the government at the earliest. However, it is not ready to provide ration and other facilities to all asylum seekers unless the government provides an official list of the new refugees, who, unfortunately, are yet to be verified. Interestingly, the UNHCR, which provided all kinds of facilities to every asylum seeker from Bhutan prior to the official registration, now wants to resume distribution of ration and other aids only when all refugees produce their photo identity cards. How can individuals, who were granted ration and other facilities for some 15 years, be denied of the same things now in the name of refugee identity cards? What is surprising here is that the majority of asylum seekers have been residing in the camps managed by the UNHCR and its partners, have their huts and even possess the ration cards or census slips issued to them in the past, but are not accepted as refugees.

The issue is tearing families apart. Some members of the same family possess refugee identity cards, while others don’t. There are even cases where husbands or wives get ration from the World Food Programme, for they have their identity cards, while their spouses and children are not entertained. The reality is such that individuals, who were expelled from the same village from Bhutan and travelled to refugee camps in Nepal together, now enjoy have different status. Those refugees who were lucky to get identity cards during the official registration have already spent four years in America. But their friends and neighbours, or even family members, are currently struggling to get their status defined. They want the government to either grant them the refugee status or remove them from the camps if they are non-Bhutanese. It must be understood here that the refugee community can play significant role in identifying their neighbours and friends, if the government and UNHCR accept their presence during the verification.

It is an undeniable fact that neither the Government of Nepal nor the UNHCR can prevent arrival of new asylum seekers from Bhutan, where people of Nepali-origin continue to lead suppressed lives. There are a significant number of political prisoners in various jails of Bhutan. They include those refugees who tried visiting their relatives  in the past and are now jailed in Bhutan. When they are released, Nepal will have to bear the burden of housing them. Therefore, if the government is not serious about identifying the status of the remaining asylum seekers, the situation might invite unhealthy scenarios in refugee camps. On the other hand, if Nepal doesn’t want to accept new arrivals from Bhutan, the government should exercise measures to fix a cut-off date for granting refugee status and inform those suffering in Bhutan that all doors are closed. But, will that be a humanitarian solution?

Mishra is the manager of Bhutan Media Society, Kathmandu

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