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Nepal to hold talks with Bhutan on refugees issue

Nepal has again asked Bhutan to resume talks on sending back more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in the Kingdom.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2006 15:23 IST

After almost two years of silence, Nepal has once again asked Bhutan to resume talks on sending back more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in Nepal and other countries for nearly two decades.

Nepal's foreign ministry spokesperson Yadav Khanal said the government has proposed to Thimphu to resume bilateral talks in Kathmandu on November 12.

Nepal's deputy Prime Minister KP Oli, who is also the foreign minister, has proposed to re-open the repatriation talks that remain deadlocked even after 15-rounds of negotiations.

During his visit to New York last month to attend the UN General Assembly, Oli had met the Bhutanese prime minister and both sides were reported to have agreed to reopen the parleys.

Nearly 106,000 people from southern Bhutan, popularly known as Lhotshampas, have been living in two districts in southeastern Nepal after being evicted from Bhutan in the 1990s.

The eviction began after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan started a "unification" drive that the refugees say is actually a bid to drive out Bhutanese of Nepali origin.

Living in seven camps administered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the refugees lead a precarious existence with no access to higher education, medical facilities or jobs.

Though Nepal allows them to stay on, they are not allowed to work or run businesses.

Even obtaining food and clothing is a hardship with the UNHCR providing only for two meals.

After school-level education, provided by the UNHCR, most children in the camps have no access to higher education.

After immense international pressure, Bhutan began repatriation talks but began lengthening them out.

The talks were finally stopped after the Bhutan government carried out a sample verification test and marked most of the inmates as ineligible to go back.

The survey triggered fury in the camps with inmates assaulting the visiting Bhutanese officials.

With no sign of being able to return home, depression and anger is riding high in the camps.

There is a growing incidence of domestic violence, prostitution, alcoholism and even suicide.

Earlier this month, in a surprise move, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs, Ellen Sauerbury, announced in Geneva that the US was willing to absorb 50,000 or 60,000 of the refugees.

The offer produced a mixed reaction. While some of the refugees have welcomed it, others are opposing it, saying if the offer was accepted, Bhutan would continue to delay their resettlement in their homeland.

The refugees and activists blame India for the impasse. They say if New Delhi, Bhutan's biggest donor and trading partner, asks Thimphu to take the refugees back, the problem will be resolved.

However, India says it is a bilateral issue to be sorted out between Bhutan and Nepal.

Desperate refugees have been trying to leave the camps and return to Bhutan. However, they are invariably stopped at the Nepal-India border by Indian security forces.

First Published: Oct 13, 2006 15:23 IST