Bhutan refugees set hope on Koirala's India visit
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Bhutan refugees set hope on Koirala's India visit

In the 1990s, Bhutanese, who were mostly of Nepali origin, were forced to flee the country following an ethnic cleansing by the govt.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2006 15:20 IST

Increasingly frustrated and depressed with living dismally in refugee camps in Nepal for 15 years with no prospects of returning home or carving out a new life, over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees are now pinning their hopes on Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's visit to India starting Tuesday.

Women, old people and people tortured in Bhutanese prisons began a sit-in before the office of the UN in Kathmandu Monday to draw attention to their plight.

"The participants are mostly torture victims, women and old people who have been in the refugee camps in the most desperate physical situation and largely ignored and neglected for the past 15 years," said the Bhutanese Refugee Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRC), a Nepal-based organisation trying to get the refugees repatriated to Bhutan.

"Despite various efforts to find a solution to the problem, the people continued to remain in the refugee camps waiting for a solution to arrive and go home.

"A chance to return home never arrived, the phasing out programme of the agencies continued, frustration and mental depression culminated among the guardians and the young ones and desperate efforts to find solution have only become their means to survive," the committee said.

In the 1990s, Bhutanese living in the southern part of the tiny Himalayan kingdom, who were mostly of Nepali origin, were forced to flee the country following an ethnic cleansing by the Bhutanese government.

A large number of them arrived in Nepal, where they were accommodated in seven camps in the east, administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with funding from UN and other international aid agencies.

However, despite several rounds of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan, and an effort to verify the camp inmates, repatriation remains stalled.

The impasse has resulted in donor fatigue with some of the aid being slashed and the UNHCR getting increasingly concerned.

Though Nepal has accommodated the refugees, it does not allow them to work or own any business or property.

Nor is it allowing the UNHCR to discuss resettling the refugees in a third country willing to accept them, resulting in the inmates living in a state of hopelessness and despair.

Domestic violence and alcoholism have increased in the camps and prostitution is on the rise. There have also been instances of suicide in the camps.

When the frustrated refugees tried to force their way back to Bhutan, they were, however, stopped by the Indian authorities at the India-Nepal border, which they have to cross to reach their home.

Both the refugees and Nepal authorities have been saying the impasse could be resolved if India, Bhutan's largest donor and trading partner, asks Thimphu to take the people back. However, New Delhi says it is a bilateral issue between Bhutan and Nepal.

About nine days ago, refugees from the Jhapa camps also began regular sit-ins on the Mechi bridge connecting eastern Nepal with India.

When it was announced that Nepali premier Koirala would go to India on a goodwill visit, Nepal's Parliament urged the leader to raise the issue of the refugees with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh.

The indefinite sit-in here is a move by the refugees to put pressure on the Nepal government on the eve of Koirala's visit.

"We will continue the sit-in for an indefinite period till a concrete assurance is obtained from the UN headquarters for immediate intervention," the BRRC said.

First Published: Jun 05, 2006 15:02 IST