US resettlement plans give hope to Bhutanese refugees
Apr 27, 2007 - 12:23:18 PM

Kathmandu, April 27 - There is finally light at the end of the tunnel for over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, with the US offering to rescue them from the ghettos in Nepal, where they have been languishing for nearly two decades.

Perturbed by Bhutan's persistent refusal to take back its citizens, who were forced to flee the country after a crackdown on ethnic groups in the 1980s, Nepal's new government has finally relented its stand that the thousands of Bhutanese living in Nepal should be repatriated, agreeing to the US offer to provide them new homes in US cities and rural areas.

In July, the US will open its Overseas Processing Entity office in Kathmandu to begin the resettlement process.

'In the first year, starting from September, we estimate about 7,000 refugees will be resettled in the US,' said Janice Belz, deputy director for admissions at the US Resettlement Program, who along with Larry Bartlett, deputy director for Asia and the Near East, arrived here for talks with Nepal's government as well as the refugees.

Since their eviction from Nepal, the fugitives, mostly of Nepali origin, have been living in seven camps in the eastern districts of Jhapa and Morang, under the administration of the UN High Commission for Refugees -.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of talks with Bhutan, the Druk kingdom dragged its feet on beginning repatriation.

Finally, the hope of the camp residents that they would be able to return home some day received a blow with the Bhutanese foreign minister this year alleging that the camps were infiltrated by communist terrorists and that by allowing the residents to return, Bhutan would be importing terrorism.

There is growing depression, domestic violence and alcoholism in the camps. Besides suicides, at least three people have died recently after clashes with the locals, who feel jobs and community forests are under threat from the camp residents.

An even more alarming development is the growing fatigue of the donors, giving rise to fears that the refugees may not have food in future. They are not allowed by the Nepal government to take up jobs or run businesses.

Though the US had earlier estimated it would resettle about 60,000 refugees, Belz said there was no cap and the resettlement would continue as long as the camp residents showed interest.

The UNHCR would also be involved in the resettlement along with the International Organisation for Migration, which will conduct the necessary medical tests.

While the US government would provide a small amount of cash and medical assistance to the resettled Bhutanese, they would be primarily supported by NGOs.

Washington is hoping that once the process starts, other countries like Canada, Denmark and Norway that had shown interest in absorbing the residents would renew their offer.

Despite its avowed dissociation from the refugee issue, India, the US feels, plays a key factor in the repatriation, which is a far more durable solution that resettlement.

The visiting US officials will arrive in New Delhi during the weekend to brief Indian authorities about the developments.

'The Indian government has a role,' said Bartlett, tacitly referring to New Delhi's influence on Bhutan by way of being the Druk kingdom's biggest donor and business partner.

'We continue to be hopeful - and we are keeping all the parties informed of the process,' he added.

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