Rights groups urge donors to press Bhutan on refugees

The Druk Human Rights Forum said the donor meet in Geneva should seek commitments from Bhutan on the refugee crisis.

india Updated: Feb 15, 2006 17:27 IST

An alliance of Bhutanese rights groups urged donor nations to press Bhutan's government at a two-day meeting beginning on Wednesday to take back refugees from camps in Nepal.

The Druk Human Rights Forum said the donor meeting in Geneva should seek commitments from the tiny Himalayan kingdom on the refugee crisis before agreeing to continue assistance, as refugees too were eligible for donor funds.

"We want donor nations to be firm so that Bhutan stops playing with refugees and hoodwinking the international community on this issue," Thinley Penjore, head of the forum, told Reuters by phone from Nepal.

In the early 1990s, the king of Bhutan stripped hundreds of ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship and threw them out of the country after they complained of racial discrimination and campaigned for democracy.

Tens of thousands joined them in exile and now more than 100,000 of them are known to be languishing in primitive refugee camps in teak forests infested with Maoist guerrillas near Nepal's border with India.

Bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan on repatriation of refugees have been stalled since December 2003.

Penjore said properties the refugees left behind in Bhutan had been given to retired military officers and civil servants as part of a land distribution policy launched by the monarch.

"Had there been any sincerity on the part of Bhutan to accept repatriation of refugees it would not have launched a resettlement programme for landless people," Penjore said.

Countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Japan contribute generously to development and social programmes in the country tucked in the mountains between India and China.

New Delhi is one of the largest donors of the Buddhist nation, contributing 80 percent of Bhutan's foreign aid.

A Bhutanese foreign office spokesman refused to comment on the refugee issue.

"The (Geneva) meeting will provide an opportunity for Bhutan and its development partners to have comprehensive talks," he said from the capital Thimphu.

First Published: Feb 15, 2006 17:27 IST