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For Bhutan’s refugees, there’s no place like home, Global Post, by Bill Frelick

For Bhutan’s refugees, there’s no place like home, Global Post, by Bill Frelick

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Published by Bill Frelick
Bill Frelick, Bhutanese refugees, Lhotshampas, Bhutan, Nepal
Bill Frelick, Bhutanese refugees, Lhotshampas, Bhutan, Nepal

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Published by: Bill Frelick on Jan 23, 2012
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Home> For Bhutan’s refugees, there’s no place like home
For Bhutan’s refugees, there’s no placelike home
Bill frelick 
1760-01-22 13:01
For Bhutan’s refugees, there’s no placelike home
March 30, 2011 11:16WASHINGTON — “The army took all the people from their houses,” the young mansaid. “As we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I wasleaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.”This childhood memory, described to me by a man in a refugee camp in Nepal four years ago, is the story of a loss that has never been made right, not even by asuccessful resettlement program.On March 25, 2008, the first Bhutanese refugee to make it to the United States as partof the resettlement program arrived in Pittsburgh. The program was intended to breakthe logjam that had left about 108,000 refugees stagnating in camps in eastern Nepalsince the early 1990s. More than 43,500 of these refugees have been resettled,including more than 37,000 to the United States, and there’s no denying they haveopportunities they could hardly have imagined even five years ago that havedramatically improved their lives.But, based on what many of the refugees told me when I interviewed them in Nepal,resettlement was not their first choice; they wanted to go home.Yet the Bhutanese government has not allowed a single one to return.In the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government enacted a “one nation, one people”campaign that arbitrarily stripped the citizenship of a large portion of the BhutaneseNepali-speaking minority known as Lhotshampas. By the end of 1990, the“Bhutanization” campaign had escalated to harassment, arrests and the burning of ethnic Nepali homes. Many fled, but the army also expelled tens of thousands, forcingthem to sign forms renouncing any claims to their homes and homeland.Should none of these refugees be allowed to return to Bhutan, it would send a terriblemessage: that a government can get away with a mass expulsion of its population onethnic lines with no consequences at all.
Glossed over by its image as a peaceable Shangri-La, Bhutan has escapedinternational scrutiny and censure, and with each passing year memories of the ethniccleansing fade and accountability seems more and more to slip away. Bhutan hascontinued steadfastly to refuse any responsibility for expelling its people and creating ahuge stateless population. In July 2010, Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley referred to therefugees as illegal immigrants.Sitting in refugee camps for years takes a severe social and psychological toll onpeople, and the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal are no exception. I met women andchildren in the camps who had been the victims of domestic and sexual violence, andsaw that depression was rife. As the years dragged on with no solutions in sight,services and aid dwindled. Massive resettlement not only relieved overcrowding butrestored hope for many.The United States and other resettlement countries should indeed be proud that theygave many of these refugees a new lease on life and helped them to realize their dreams.But it’s not everyone’s dream. For many still in the camps — for older refugees, inparticular, who remember their lives in Bhutan and still mourn their losses — watchingtheir compatriots leave has been a bitter experience. About 17,000 of the remainingrefugees have not sought third country resettlement, many still holding out for repatriation.Since resettlement is an option available only to about 1 percent of the world’s refugees,it needs not only to provide rescue for the lucky few who can be brought to faraway newhomes, but also to leverage just and durable solutions for the refugees who stay behind— in this case voluntary repatriation.Countries resettling these Bhutanese refugees are approaching the 50,000 mark, andthe United Nations will celebrate this year both the 60th anniversary of the ConventionRelating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on theReduction of Statelessness.To mark these milestones, the governments that have generously welcomed Bhutaneserefugees and offered them citizenship — the United States, Canada, Australia, NewZealand, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, hopefully joinedby India and other regional players — should now press Bhutan at least to allow elderlyrefugees to spend their remaining days in their homeland. By agreeing to such a low-risk, low-cost gesture, the Bhutanese government would be acknowledging thehistorical wrong done to the Lhotshampas and affirming their right of return. But if theBhutanese government doesn’t shoulder its responsibilities, the relevant United Nationsbodies may feel it necessary to undertake formal efforts to resolve this longstandingproblem.If after 20 years these refugees are allowed to see their homeland again, and on thatday a government photographer snaps a new ID photo, no one will have to force themto smile.
Bill Frelick is the Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch and editor of the2007 report "Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees inNepal and India." 

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