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FOCUS June 2001 Volume 24

Bhutanese Refugee Verification: Serious Commitment or a Time-Buying Tactic?

Jagatmani Acharya

Today more than 98,000 Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps in the eastern part of Nepal. In addition, 10,000 Bhutanese refugees live outside the camps in Nepal and another 20,000 live in India. The Bhutanese government evicted these refugees using various policies like the Citizenship Act of 1985, One Nation One People system, Marriage Act of 1988, No-Objection Certificate system, Voluntary Migration Forms (VMF) system, etc.

One of the major issues confounding these refugees is their verification as citizens of Bhutan. To address this problem, the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) was formed on July 17, 1993 to find a just solution to the issue. The ninth round of bilateral negotiations held in May 2000 had remained a deadlock in the process of verification of refugees. While Nepal maintained that the verification team should interview the heads of the family (unit verification), Bhutan opted for interviews with individual members of the refugee family. After the tenth round of bilateral negotiations held in December 2001, the two parties finally agreed to form a Joint Verification Team (JVT) and the problem of unit verification that had remained a bottleneck during the ninth round was finally resolved. Consequently, the Bhutanese refugees for the first time sensed a certain degree of commitment on the part of the Bhutanese government towards facilitating an environment for their return to their cherished homes in Bhutan. Thus, the development reached between Nepal and Bhutan, to begin the field verification was appreciated and welcomed by the refugees and others concerned.

In principle, the JVT consists of five members each from Nepal and Bhutan. Sonam Tenzin heads the Bhutanese team while Sushil J. B. Rana heads the Nepalese team. The verification process starts with a briefing on the standardized blank forms provided, instructions on filling them out, photocopying, and scanning of documentary evidence, and photography (family as a whole and of individuals). Then the interviewing part is led by the Bhutanese team, which conducts the interviews while the Nepalese team merely monitors the process.

The verification itself is carried out in two phases where two separate Performa are given to the refugees in the JVT office. All the refugees are required to complete both forms inside the office. In the first form, the refugees present information about themselves and their families. In the second Performa, the refugees provide information about their address, land, etc. in Bhutan.

The JVT has agreed that the official documents issued by the Bhutanese government, such as the Bhutanese citizenship certificates, land ownership certificates, documents related to government/civil services, scholarship to the students, birth and marriage registration certificates, passports, trade licenses, receipts of voluntary labor contributions, and school registration documents, would be the basis for authentication of Bhutanese citizens from non-Bhutanese. Almost all of the refugees have some sort of documents to corroborate their nationality. But it is yet not clear if the Bhutanese government will welcome all of its citizens previously residing in southern Bhutan who fled the country primarily after the introduction of the "discriminatory" Citizenship Act of 1985. The Act in effect required anyone claiming to be a Bhutanese to have the land tax receipt of 1958. The 1988 census of Bhutan labeled those found without the document as non-nationals and caused their alleged forcible eviction.

The verification of Bhutanese refugees started on March 26, 2001. The first ten Bhutanese refugee families were brought to the JVT office in a bus from Khudunabari refugee camp in eastern Nepal. Only two out of the ten selected Bhutanese refugee families could undergo the complete verification process that day. However, today, an average of nine families are verified per day. Even then, the rate is still slow relative to the number of refugees that have fled Bhutan. Thus, such a snail-paced verification process appears to be a time-buying tactic that will eventually delay the refugee repatriation process.

In addition, the provision of filling up the forms before the interviews has led to several reservations. Questions such as who evicted you, and why did you not make an appeal to higher authority against your forced eviction are viewed as being unjustified and improper since the eviction order in most cases came directly from the Bhutanese high level authority and there was no room for appeal. Nevertheless, there are many cases where appeals were made, but failed. For instance, Tek Nath Rizal was imprisoned and finally evicted from the country for making an appeal to the King. Similarly, Aita Singh Magar, the first Bhutanese refugee interviewed by the Joint Verification Team comprising of Nepalese and Bhutanese officials at Damak, found later that the person interviewing him was none other than the man who had ordered him to leave his homeland more than a decade back.

Moreover, the JVT is a technical team set up to check the documents and interview the refugees. If there are complications, controversies, doubts etc, arising during the verification process, the JVT has to forward such issues to the secretary level and then to the JMLC for further decision. The JMLC is the final authority and since it is comprised of ministers, their decisions are likely to delay matters further. Bhutan's intransigence might further complicate matters--it might create complications for over fifty percent of refugees by rejecting the documents or by other means. If the JVT is to place the problems of even 50 percent of the refugees before the JMLC, one can imagine the volume of work and amount of delay that will be involved. Will it be possible for the ministers in the JMLC to sit for a marathon meeting for three or four months at a time to sort out the problems of over 50 percent of the refugees? Furthermore, the unstable situation in Nepalese politics and frequent changes in government will only exacerbate the situation. The replacement of the Nepalese leader in the JVT cast doubt over the JVT itself. The JMLC is bound to take another four or five years over and above the time it will take to announce the result. Who knows? The whole process can rebound into unknown rounds of meetings of the JMLC in the future.

It was only in 1993 that both Nepal and Bhutan agreed to categorize the refugees into four types, namely, 1) bonafide Bhutanese if they have been evicted forcefully; 2) Bhutanese who have emigrated; 3) non-Bhutanese people; and 4) Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. The consequent differences in the positions of Nepal and Bhutan and heavy criticism from the refugee community itself took seven more years for the two parties to come to a common agreeable point.

There are many more hurdles for the refugees in the future. The joint press release of the JMLC does not spell out a word about the contentious issue of categorization. The National Assembly of Bhutan in its last session of July 2000 demanded that the Royal government should not admit responsibility for those refugees who supposedly signed the so-called voluntary migration forms or VMF (for Bhutanese who emigrated). It further demanded that the Royal government should bring to court all those individuals who have committed criminal acts or have written and spoken against the government. Sixty percent of the camps' population has signed under duress the so-called VMF.

To make matters worse, UNHCR, which is responsible for the relief and protection of the refugees, has no role in this process. Bhutanese refugee leaders and human rights groups have been demanding the involvement of a third party -- in this case, the UNHCR. The UNHCR at the most is expected to provide inputs and assistance only on technical issues like logistic support and peripheral information. However, both governments have not responded to such demands yet.

As time passes, the optimism among the refugees is bound to fade. The lengthy process of verification and the lack of commitment on the part of the Bhutanese government to take back all the refugees identified as its citizens raise questions about the entire exercise. Given the past record of accomplishment, people fear that the entire process might turn into a fiasco anytime soon.

The resettlement of the northern Bhutanese on the land that belongs to the refugees continues while Bhutan is interviewing refugees for repatriation. If the resettlement of the Northern Bhutanese does not cease, where will the refugees go? The result of verification is to be announced only after the completion of the endorsement of all the refugees. The refugees who have already completed their interviews with the JVT will not know their status until the end of the entire verification process. The verification process thus seems to be an unrealistic and only a time-buying tactic of the government of Bhutan. If the verification process continues at this pace, it will take at least six years to complete the entire process, while developing additional complications along the way.

Jagatmani Acharya is a research associate of the Kathmandu-based South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR),

For further information please contact: South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), GPO Box 12855, Kathmandu, Nepal, ph (977-1) 541-026; Fax. (977-1) 527-852; e-mail: jagat@safhr. org; www. safhr. org


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