Nepal, Bhutan agree to talks on refugee homecoming

April 15th, 2011 - 4:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, April 15 (IANS) Almost a decade after Bhutan broke off talks with Nepal for repatriation of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, the prime minister of the Buddhist kingdom Friday said during his official visit to Nepal that bilateral talks would be resumed.

On a three-day visit to Nepal since Thursday in his capacity as chairman of regional cooperation bloc SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Thinley met his Nepali counterpart Jhala Nath Khanal in Kathmandu Friday when he agreed to Khanal’s proposal that the halted talks be resumed, Khanal’s foreign affairs adviser Milan Tuladhar said.

Since 1991, over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin, also known as Lhotsampas, have been forced to flee their homeland after the Druk kingdom began a political and ethnic cleansing. Accounting for almost a sixth of Bhutan’s population, most of the fleeing refugees reached Nepal for asylum while the rest remained in India.

The Bhutanese refugees began living in seven camps in eastern Nepal run by the UN’s refugee assistance agency. Many of them have lived in exile for nearly two decades.

Though international pressure made Bhutan begin repatriation talks with Nepal in 1993, it dragged its feet, coming up with a survey of the camp residents that branded many as criminals. The survey was rejected by the refugees.

After 14 rounds of fruitless talks, the negotiations broke down entirely in 2003 after angry refugees attacked visiting Bhutanese officials.

Since then, Nepal was overtaken by deep political turmoil and was in no position to forcefully broach the subject of resuming repatriation talks with Bhutan.

Finally, realising the bleakness of the situation, both Nepal and the refugees accepted the offer by a group of western governments that they begin life afresh in the west.

The repatriation has now become the UN’s largest refugee resettlement programme with the US offering to absorb the highest number of refugees.

As the camps begin to empty out in Nepal, the older refugees, however, have still clung to their hope that they would be allowed to return to their homes in Bhutan some day.

The promulgation of the first constitution and the coronation of a new king in Bhutan had raised the homecoming hopes for the refugees but these were dashed.

Refugee leaders, who had in the past tried to stage a march back to Bhutan but were prevented by Indian security forces with the skirmish killing at least two refugees, say the homecoming dream will not come true as long as India, Bhutan’s largest trade partner and foreign affairs advisor, supports Bhutan’s reluctance to allow the wanderers back.

India, however, refuses to speak on behalf of Nepal or the refugees, calling the repatriation a bilateral issue between Bhutan and Nepal.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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