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Resettling Bhutan's Refugees

The opening of the International Organization for Migration’s refugee processing center in Damak in western Nepal offers hope to more than one-hundred-thousand Bhutanese refugees, most of whom have lived in camps for nearly two decades. The U.S. has offered to re-settle up to sixty-thousand of these refugees in the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell is the chairman of the Core Group of Nations as Represented in Nepal, which includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway. They are working to resolve the Bhutanese refugee crisis. On behalf of the core group, Ms. Powell issued a statement saying, “it is our hope that in 2008, more than thirteen-thousand refugees will be resettled from Nepal. By the end of 2009, we hope that an additional twenty-thousand more refugees who have chosen resettlement will be starting new lives in the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.”

The refugees are descendents of Nepalese who moved to Bhutan in the nineteenth century. Most of these ethnic Nepalis were Hindu and remained largely distinct from Bhutan’s Buddhist Druk majority. During the 1980s, the Buddhist-dominated Bhutanese government stripped ethnic Nepalis of citizenship and other basic rights and expelled tens of thousands of them.

Since 1991, Nepal has given asylum to more than one-hundred-thousand Bhutanese refugees. Many of these refugees wish only to return to their homes in Bhutan. “The Core Group would like to emphasize,” said U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell, “that the offer of resettlement goes hand in hand with our continuing efforts to urge the government of Bhutan to accept the return of the refugees.” Local integration within Nepal, said Ms. Powell, is also a desirable solution to the problem.

Some refugees who have chosen resettlement in the U.S. or other countries have suffered violence from other refugees who want all refugees to be repatriated to Bhutan. “Each refugee is entitled to make his or her own choice, in an atmosphere free from threats and intimidation,” said Ms. Powell. “We know that many refugees in the camps remain concerned about their security and ask that the government [of Nepal]. . .vigorously pursue the perpetrators of violent acts against the resident of the camps.”

U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Nancy Powell said that the Core Group nations “have extended the offer of resettlement as a durable solution” to the plight of the Bhutanese refugees.