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UNHCR urges Bhutanese refugees to wait for right opportunity to go home


UNHCR urges Bhutanese refugees to wait for right opportunity to go home

The UN refugee agency has launched an information campaign to warn Bhutanese refugees in Nepal's camps about the pitfalls of trying to return home on their own after an abortive attempt resulted in some refugees being placed at physical risk.
16 August 2005
After 15 years in exile, frustrations are growing among 105,000 Bhutanese refugees in seven camps in eastern Nepal. UNHCR is urging them not to go home on their own.

DAMAK, Nepal, August 16 (UNHCR) - After an abortive attempt earlier this month by some 300 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal to return home on their own which resulted in some refugees being placed at physical risk, the UN refugee agency launched an information campaign this week to warn Bhutanese refugees in Nepal's camps about the pitfalls of trying to return alone.

"We are hoping this two-week-long information campaign will help the refugees understand the real risks and consequences of trying to return outside the framework of an agreement between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments," said UNHCR's representative in Nepal, Abraham Abraham.

On August 3, about 300 refugees from the Beldangi camps attempted to cross the Nepal-India border about 45 km from the camps to return to Bhutan. They were stopped by the Indian security forces and became stranded. Some were stoned by unknown elements, sustaining light injuries. Later the refugees were returned to the camps by the Nepalese authorities.

Levels of frustration among the 105,000 Bhutanese refugees in the seven camps in Nepal are increasing after 15 years of living in exile, and not a single refugee returning through an organised repatriation.

"We certainly recognise the refugees' rising frustrations and disillusionment with the bilateral process from which we have been totally excluded," said Abraham. "But any uncoordinated return movement, like the one on August 3, will be seen as a provocative and unilateral act on the part of refugees. And, an unfortunate consequence will be that political support - a prerequisite for a safe and dignified return of the refugees - will not be forthcoming."

The UNHCR information campaign started with an interactive session in Beldangi I refugee camp, the camp from where the largest number of refugees participated in the recent attempt to return. Refugees - including some from the group that tried to go home on August 3 - gathered in a camp hall, sat on blue plastic sheets and listened attentively to the message of the four-person UNHCR team.

"UNHCR recognises the refugees' right to return. But attempts to move from the camps on your own will put refugees' security and safety at risk and create difficulties at the border points," Misko Mimica, a UNHCR field protection officer, told the refugees.

"The information paper is good and we fully agree with what UNHCR has said," said a refugee, nodding his head. Looking a bit concerned, he said, "But even after 15 rounds of talks, there has been no solution to this problem and we do not know how long we have to wait to go back to our home country."

Other refugees from the crowd echoed the same sentiments in a disheartened tone: "Yes, we do not know how long we will have to wait."

Pamphlets warning refugees of the risks of returning alone have been widely distributed throughout the seven camps and a series of information meetings with refugees are being held to ensure that the message reaches every refugee.

After reading the UNHCR information pamphlet, an elderly refugee said, "The Bhutanese political parties work on their own these days. They do not coordinate with each other." He looked angry and added, "The way children and women were put at risk in the recent attempt to return is a matter of serious concern."

Some 105,000 Bhutanese refugees have been living in the seven camps in eastern Nepal since they were forcibly evicted from Bhutan in the early 1990s. Since 1993 there have been 15 rounds of inconclusive negotiations on repatriation between the two governments.

There have been few incidents of peaceful marches organised by refugees to Bhutan in the past, which were not successful. But as one refugee appealed, "We want a durable solution at the earliest. It is getting difficult for us to continue living as refugees."

By Nini Gurung in Damak, eastern Nepal