Nepal finally waves away refugees
By Alexander Casella
After dragging on for close to 18 years - often in almost farcical fashion - at
an estimated cost of some US$350 million, resolution of the Bhutan refugee
crisis is at hand. This month, the first batch of 25,000 refugees left camps in
seven United Nations-supervised camps in eastern Nepal, and the vast majority
of the 86,000 remaining have signed up for resettlement in the West; most of
them are heading for the United States.
The origin of the crisis, which has exposed bureaucratic bungling and
nationalist fervor at their worst, lies not so much in Bhutan as in Sikkim,
which provided a foreshadow of what could have been the fate of Bhutan.
With porous borders and a weak state apparatus, the diminutive kingdom of
Sikkim had become a destination of choice for a creeping ongoing uncontrolled
immigration from nearby Nepal. As
the Nepalese slowly increased in number they also brought with them the
political factionalism and dissent that plagued their country of origin. By
1975, the local Sikimese Bhutia had become a minority in their own country and
the level of political unrest had become such that New Delhi had to step in and
The lesson was not lost on the Bhutanese, who were also exposed to similar
immigration pressure from Nepal and where government circles had come to the
conclusion - a view shared by many Western specialist of the region - that
Bhutan was destined for extinction if decisive measures were not taken to bring
to a stop what had become a process of creeping demographic encroachment.
Thus, by the early 1980s, the government of Bhutan started to tighten rules
regarding immigration. Likewise, residency requirements regarding the
acquisition of citizenship, though still relatively liberal in comparison to
those of many Western countries, were made more stringent. Admittance to
government service was also restricted to nationals and the use of the national
language, Dzongkha, was made mandatory for official business.
These measures were increasingly badly received by the immigrant community and
with unrest spreading in southern Bhutan, where most of the newcomers had
congregated, the authorities decided to resort to a more radical solution - the
wholesale expulsion of immigrants. Thus, between the end of 1990 and 1992, some
100,000 illegal immigrants were expelled from Bhutan.
While there was considerable debate as regards the precise composition of the
group, the fact that some 70,000 moved to Nepal, which had no common border
with Bhutan as it is separated by a strip of land that is part of India, made a
compelling case for them being of Nepali origin. As for the remaining 30,000,
they moved to India, where they joined the some four million strong Nepalese
While the expulsions were at times brutal, for the half million indigenous
inhabitants of Bhutan what was at stake was the cultural survival of the last
Tantric Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.
Had events been permitted to run their course, the 70,000 who arrived in Nepal
would have faded away and the impact of their arrival in a country of some 28.5
million inhabitants which, for all practical purposes was their own, would have
passed unnoticed. That events took another turn was due to an odd set of
circumstances, namely the failure of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, to properly address the Kurdish crisis
in northern Iraq in 1991.
In the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, the US government encouraged the
Kurds in northern Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein. When, however, Saddam
turned against the Kurds, Washington did not come to their help and the result
was a massive population displacement which saw hundreds of thousands of Kurds
seek refuge in areas in northern Iraq not under Saddam's control, while others
sought refuge in Iran and Turkey.
The exodus caught the then-high commissioner for refugees, Madame Sadako Ogata,
completely unprepared and exposed her to a wave of criticism both from Western
governments and the non-governmental organization community.
To mitigate censure for her failure, Ogata created, within the UNHCR
bureaucracy, a so-called Emergency Response Unit allegedly responsible for
ensuring that the refugee agency be capable of responding at short notice to a
sudden refugee crisis anywhere in the world.
However, with no further crises in sight but an unemployed emergency unit at
hand, the UNHCR bureaucracy became a solution in search of a problem. That
problem suddenly emerged in 1992, when the government of Nepal asked the UNHCR
to take charge of the group expelled from Bhutan on the grounds that these were
"refugees", that is, foreign nationals who had fled persecution in their
country of origin.
Normally, the UNHCR, before intervening, would have undertaken a survey of the
caseload to determine exactly their nationality and reasons for departure. Had
this been undertaken, the inescapable conclusion would have been that the
overwhelming majority were actually Nepalese and hence, by the fact that they
were in their own country, did not qualifying for refugee status.
But Ogata did not run a tight shop and spurred by the urge to be perceived as
active, the UNHCR opened seven camps without undertaking even a semblance of a
survey of the arrivals. Over subsequent years, as the UNHCR kept on pouring
money into the camps, Bhutan and Nepal embarked on a series of protracted and
fruitless discussions as to how to deal with the group.
While Bhutan acknowledged that among the camp population there might be a few
bona-fide Bhutanese citizens whom they could accept back, they where wary of
exposing themselves to a massive return. Conversely, the Nepali authorities,
already embroiled in a major internal crisis, were insisting on the wholesale
return of the group. By then, the camps had become hotbeds of opposition to the
Bhutanese government and were in part controlled by various Marxist groups,
including some of Maoist extraction.
In 1996, a senior UNHCR official on a visit to Bhutan acknowledged that the
UNHCR should never have opened the camps in the first place, with the
extenuating explanation that the decision to do so derived from plain stupidity
rather than evil intent. But Japanese Ogata was not one to acknowledge her
mistakes, and though she visited Bhutan in November 2000, she remained
impervious to any recommendations to close the camps.
By the time Ogata left the UNHCR in December 2000, the situation in the camps
had undergone a thorough Palestinization and with Nepal dead-set against local
integration schemes, no solution appeared in sight other than the prospect of
an unending financing for the camps.
Within the UNHCR, it was not a situation with which the hardcore bureaucracy
found fault. With the agency's existence justified by the existence of
refugees, the incentive was in opening camps rather than closing them and the
more refugees to care for so much the better. And when the beneficiaries were
not exactly "refugees", the temptation to stretch the rules and thus increase
the number of the organization's constituents proved irresistible.
It was only in 2004, with the nomination of a new director for Asia, that the
UNHCR started to reconsider the issue. With neither repatriation nor local
settlement in the cards, resettlement appeared as the only viable option. Thus,
by 2006, following a Canadian initiative, the so-called "Core Group" of
countries which had monitored the problem and that included Australia, Canada,
Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the US, decided that they
would all offer resettlement slots to the camp population. With the US ready to
accept up to 70 000 and a resettlement rhythm of some 20,000 a year, it was
estimated that in four to five years the problem could be solved and the camps
The announcement of the resettlement scheme provoked a major outcry throughout
the camps. Fearful of losing their captive constituencies, the various
political factions active in the camps, such as the Bhutan Communist Party, the
Bhutan Peoples' Party and the Democratic Socialists, supported by exiled
movements, launched a massive campaign against resettlement. Riots erupted and
in May 2007 three camp inhabitants who had volunteered for resettlement were
killed. As for the Nepal government, for whom the camps represented a source of
income, it was only after severe pressure from the "Core Group" that it agreed
to deliver exit permits to those who had been accepted for resettlement.
While the resettlement selection process proved laborious for most of the camp
inhabitants, the opportunity to move to a developed country finally proved
irresistible. Thus, this December, the UNHCR announced that 25,000 refugees had
signed up for resettlement in the West. The Nepal office of the UNHCR said the
US had so far accepted the largest number, 22,060, followed by Australia
(1,006), Canada (892), Norway (316), Denmark (305), New Zealand (299) and the
With the trend towards resettlement now irreversible, it is only a matter of
time before the Bhutan "refugee" issue is brought to its final conclusion.