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Bhutan refugees likely to be resettled in US

world Updated: Mar 08, 2007 12:49 IST

IANS
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After spending nearly two desolate decades in spartan refugee camps in Nepal, Bhutanese refugees now have the first glimmer of hope for a new life with the US government reaching an agreement with Nepal to resettle them.

In the next four to five years, about 60,000 Bhutanese refugees are expected to be resettled in the US, officials confirmed.

At present, over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin are living in seven camps in eastern Nepal since the 1990s, when they were forced to leave the Druk kingdom after a "unifying" process that was virtually a crackdown on naturalised Bhutanese.

"The government of Nepal has given the US government permission to begin planning for a resettlement programme based on the assumption that third-country resettlement will be an integral component of a comprehensive solution for the Bhutanese refugees," a spokesperson at the US Embassy in Kathmandu said.

"An Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) is being set up (in Kathmandu) primarily to process up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees over the next four to five years."

After years of opposing third-country resettlement and demanding that the Bhutan government allow them to return home and return their confiscated properties, the Bhutanese in Nepal are now forced to consider other options.

Though Bhutan held 14 rounds of talks on the repatriation of refugees with Nepal, it is seen as wilfully dragging its feet and using the talks to deflect international criticism.

The refugees' hopes of returning home received a blow recently when the Bhutanese foreign minister alleged that the camps were infiltrated by Maoist insurgents and repatriation would mean importing terrorism to Bhutan.

A second blow came last month when India, Bhutan's biggest donor and trading partner, revised its friendship treaty with Thimphu without making any reference to the refugee issue.

The Bhutanese, the international community and the UN High Commission for Refugees, that administers the seven camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal where the refugees are herded, say that the impasse can be resolved if India asks Bhutan to act.

India, however, has refused to intervene, saying it's a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan.

At the same time, the Indian border patrols have been preventing the Bhutanese in Nepal to return to their homeland via India.

When Bhutan's new King Jigme Khesar Wangchuk visited New Delhi in February, his first foreign trip after his father King Jigme Wangchuk announced his abdication, the refugees in Bhutan prayed for a change of heart in Thimphu.

"We had hoped something would come out during the visit," Thinley Penjor, chairperson of the National Front for Democracy, told the Nepali media. "But nothing happened."