Nepal to resume talks with Bhutan on refugee repatriation

  • But formal discussions with Thimphu are yet to start, Foreign Minister Gyawali says
- ANIL GIRI, Kathmandu

Feb 3, 2019-

Nepal has decided to resume talks with Bhutan to repatriate the remaining 6,500 Bhutanese refugees who are living in two camps in Jhapa. The initiative will be first in the last one and a half decades after the 15th round of ministerial-level talks with Thimphu failed in 2003.

A Cabinet meeting on December 3 had decided to resume talks with Thimphu and mandated three ministers and as many secretaries to prepare policy, strategy and work plan for the repatriation of refugees.

However, no formal or informal initiatives have been taken so far.

Read: Bhutanese refugee issue resurfaces after provisions dry up

“We have not started any formal discussion on the Cabinet decision yet, but internal discussions are on,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Gyawali told the Post on Sunday.

The new Nepali Ambassador to New Delhi, Nilamber Acharya, who is also accredited for Bhutan, is expected present his letter of credence to the Bhutanese king at the earliest possible date, after which the issue of further talks will officially land in Thimphu, sources familiar with the development told the Post.

After the 15th Ministerial Joint Committee meeting on Bhutanese refugees held in Bhutan failed in October 2003, the UN refugee agency has helped resettle over 112,800 refugees in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

As the last batch of refugees is all set to leave for the third country resettlement soon, around 6,500 Bhutanese refugees are left with only two options—local assimilation or repatriation to their home country.

But Nepal has been against allowing the remaining refugees to resettle in the country.

“Time and again, we have made clear to the UN refugee agency that we hosted them purely on a humanitarian ground since we are not a party to the UN refugee convention and protocol,” Gyawali told the Post. “We have also flatly rejected the local assimilation of the refugees as our priority is our own people, not the refugees.” 

Nepal also faces the imminent challenge of feeding the refugees as the World Food Program has cut food aid for the Bhutanese refugees.

Read: Bhutan refugees rally for help to go back home

The UN agency that had been assisting with its food distribution programme for the last 26 years stopped providing food from December 2018 after it said its priority has shifted from Nepal to other countries.

Earlier, the Nepal government had called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to build pressure on Thimphu to accept the remaining refugees from Bhutan. The UN refugee agency had said it was collecting data of refugees who wanted to return Bhutan.

After completing the data collection of refugees who wish to return to Bhutan, its compilation will be forwarded to the headquarters of UN refugee agency in Geneva to lobby with Bhutan, according to a senior foreign ministry official who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to speak with media at this stage.

In 2007, when the third-country settlement programme was about to start, the UN refugee agency had assured Nepali authorities that it would extend support for the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees “once resettlement was over”. 

Read: After all these years


Published: 04-02-2019 06:30

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