|Despite promises from the Bhutanese government to repatriate refugees after a 'verification' process, none were allowed to return, leading to Western programmes of resettlement [CC- Sudeshna Sarkar/ISN Security Watch]
A knock on the door of his home in Bhutan one midnight turned middle-level government official Balaram Paudyal into a fugitive overnight, after he managed to elude policemen arresting him for "anti-government activities", and then fled the country.
Twenty-two years later, Paudyal is living in a refugee camp in Nepal, along with thousands of fellow Bhutanese driven away in the 1980s.
Last week, Bhutan agreed to resume talks to have them repatriated, raising hopes of a possible homecoming. But those hopes were dashed the next day, when the government insisted on screening the refugees, and verifying their identities.
The refugees have reacted with anger, saying Bhutan is simply stalling.
"Nepal and Bhutan jointly verified refugees of Khudunabari, one of seven camps, some years back," says T. P. Mishra, the 28 year-old editor of the Bhutan News Service (BNS) that operates from exile. "Though most of them were categorised as genuine Bhutanese, not a single refugee has been repatriated."
The exodus started in the late 1980s. "Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese were arbitrarily deprived of their Bhutanese citizenship," says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report Last Hope. "Some were then expelled from Bhutan, while others fled the country to escape from a campaign of arbitrary arrest and detention directed against the ethnic Nepalese."
Some one-fifth of the population were driven out, most of whom reached Nepal in the 1990s after wandering through India, which stands between the two tiny Himalayan nations. As the trickle of refugees became a flood, an alarmed Nepal asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for help and in 1992, UNHCR launched a major emergency assistance programme with the World Food Programme and other non-governmental partners.
In 2006 to 2007, the number of registered refugees living in seven camps run by the UNHCR in eastern Nepal's Jhapa and Morang districts had surpassed 108,000. Some 20,000 more live outside the camps in Nepal and another estimated 25,000 in India.
Life in the camps has been one long tale of hardship and deprivations. Several families are crammed into one-room shacks, sharing the same toilet. When the sun sets, darkness engulfs the camps, which are without electricity.
In summer, fires devastate the camps; during the monsoon, downpours drench the rooms. Domestic violence, alcoholism and prostitution have grown, as have cases of HIV/AIDS.
Though Nepal allowed the refugees asylum, it does not allow them to work or run businesses, fearing increased competition for locals.
"Refugees have the right under international law to their own country," says HRW. "However, in a flawed process that was widely discredited by international observers and refugee experts, Bhutan and Nepal instituted a joint verification process to determine which refugees would be able to return."
The camp residents were to have been classified into four groups: bona fide citizens; those who had surrendered their citizenship and would have to apply again; non-Bhutanese, who would not be allowed to go back; and criminals, who would face trial once they went back. Despite the verification process, no one was allowed home.
In 2006 to 2007, Western countries, led by the US, persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to be resettled in third countries.
Today, the relocation of Bhutanese refugees has become the UNHCR's largest and most successful resettlement programme.
Assisted by the International Organisation for Migration, 40,000 refugees had left the camps by 2010. Of the 72,733 refugees left, the UNHCR says approximately 55,000 have shown interest in resettlement and could leave by 2014.
Last week, Bhutan's prime minister Jigmi Thinley arrived in Nepal on a three-day state visit, and said his government was ready to resume the repatriation talks halted eight years ago. However, he added that there should be a fresh "study" or "investigation" of the "people living in the camps".
"They are economic refugees, they are environmental refugees, they are refugees of political instability," Thinley said at a press conference in Kathmandu Saturday before his departure. "And they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. But I maintain that the question of whether they are refugees from Bhutan is a subject of discussion."
"Each time the Bhutanese PM visits Kathmandu, he continues to say that Bhutan is serious about the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees," said Mishra, who last year accepted resettlement in North Carolina and now works for a resettlement agency assisting Bhutanese refugees to assimilate locally. He also continues running BNS, which is a matter of pride for the refugees.
"It is nothing but a tactfully played game to hoodwink the international community," he added.
Mishra said he would like to return to Bhutan but his wife Renuka feels their lives would be in danger if they do. He also points out that some of the inmates in the Khudunabari camp, who were not accepted as Bhutanese citizens by the verification team, have been resettled in various western countries.
"So Bhutan's claim that not all camp residents are Bhutanese is baseless," he says.
Bhutan People's Party (BPP), the party founded by the refugees, has delivered an ultimatum. "We are asking Bhutan's new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, to learn from the democratic transformations around the world and resume repatriation talks by 2011," said Paudyal, BPP chairman. "Otherwise, we will plan tougher measures."
Mishra said an underground Maoist party wants to overthrow the monarchy in Bhutan through an insurrection, and has been gaining support in the camps as well.
The refugees draw parallels between Bhutan and Nepal. Till 2008, Nepal too had been a monarchy. However, its Maoist party waged a ten-year war against King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and in 2008, managed to abolish monarchy through an election.
"History shows that you can't defeat the people," Paudyal cautions.
"If the king of Bhutan doesn't heed the warning, he would end up losing one day. The people will prevail ultimately."
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service news agency.