Dicey song

From a purely humanitarian point of view, the American offer to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees languishing in the seven refugee camps in eastern Terai for the past fifteen years comes across as a welcome gesture, as it will help settle, in a way, about half the refugee problem. The Nepal government is yet to react to the US offer, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has lauded it as “extremely welcome and generous” being the “first concrete offer to resolve one of Asia’s most protracted refugee situations”. This comes in the context of little headway in breaking the refugee impasse despite fifteen rounds of ministerial talks between Nepal and Bhutan. According to UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis, Canada and Australia have also expressed interest in taking some of the 107,000 Bhutanese refugees. Terming the road ahead “complex”, Pagonis wants Nepal to “maximise the opportunity being presented by these interested countries”.

But beyond the humanitarian angle, the American offer amounts to condoning the racist policy of the authoritarian regime in Thimphu. The United States, so insistent on democracy and human rights elsewhere, is widely perceived by the Nepalis and refugees to have been too soft on the Druk rulers. Most Bhutanese, judging by the news reports, seem to be unhappy at the US offer as they would like to see the world’s only superpower to use its international clout and prestige to persuade Thimphu to resolve the crisis sincerely in accordance with international norms and conventions. The offer also tends to ignore the natural and legal right of the refugees to return to their country from which they were evicted or forced to leave because of torture or persecution.

In dealing with the Bhutanese refugee crisis, which is in fact a trilateral issue, the global powers and agencies, for reasons best known to themselves, seem to have been ineffective. This will certainly weaken their moral authority to put pressure on other governments around the world which may be similarly guilty. In this context, the criticism of the US offer by Bhutanese human rights leader Teknath Rijal sounds reasonable, as he described it as being “in favour of the Bhutanese king but against the Bhutanese people”. He found UNHCR’s praise of the American offer even before host country Nepal’s response as “even more objectionable”. He said that the right of the refugees to voluntary and honourable return to Bhutan must be emphasised. Indeed, the refugees should have the first option of returning to their motherland. However, if any of them do want to opt for third-country resettlement, they should be free to do so, and in such situations, gestures such as the one made by America would come in handy. But the aforesaid US offer may endanger the prospects of refugee repatriation. For its part, Nepal should make its position clear, and at the upcoming talks with Bhutan, it must reject any formula that may compromise the refugees’ right to return home with honour and dignity.