PM’s 3-pronged strategy on Bhutanese refugee solution

  • world refugee day
- John Narayan Parajuli, Kathmandu

Jun 20, 2016-

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 (see interview in our online edition).

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

Canada    6,691

Australia    5,837

New Zealand    1,009

Denmark    875

Norway    566

The United Kingdom    358

The Netherlands    164

Published: 20-06-2016 08:21

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