Sunday, November 1, 2009


JOHN NARAYAN PARAJULI Sunday October, 17 2004
Last week brought another reminder to the more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, languishing in seven camps in eastern Nepal, that they might not be able to continue to enjoy the UNHCR's humanitarian aid for much longer. United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees Rudd Lubbers reiterated the essence of his message last year to Bhutanese refugees during the 55th annual UNHCR executive committee meeting in Geneva on October 5: By the end of 2005, we will withdraw. The UNHCR maintains
that the withdrawal doesn't mean the withdrawal of its protection mandate. "Less encouraging is the situation of the Bhutanese people in camps in Nepal. At ExCom last year I said that we cannot accept that they remain there indefinitely," Lubbers said.

Lubbers last year had unveiled the Convention Plus initiative, intended, according to the UNHCR, to find equitable ways of sharing the burden of caring for the refugees. The UNHCR's hands are understandably full. With more than 20 million refugees worldwide and more continuing to pour in from escalating conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the UNHCR has initiated the plan to minimize its own role to a legal protection level only. Lubbers' plan could bring some relief to overstretched U.N. refugee agency, but it will surely take the relief away from the refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency is hoping that bilateral and multilateral donor agencies will chip in to substitute for the UNHCR. So far none of the bilateral donors seems to have committed to work in the Bhutanese refugee camps. Even UNHCR officials in Kathmandu haven't briefed the bigger donors about their plans.

Lubbers' reiteration of the message is likely to cause panic among refugees, as most of them were led to believe that UNHCR was just trying to pressure the Nepali and the Bhutanese governments to find a solution quickly. Now there is reason to believe that the UNHCR is serious. "The UNHCR's phase-out program could hinder repatriation,"
Ratan Gazmere, a Bhutanese leader accompanying Tek Nath Rijal to Geneva, told reporters before leaving to attend the UNHCR's executive committee meeting from September 28 to October 8.

Refugees are worried about what would happen to them after the proposed withdrawal, says a journalist from Damak, Jhapa. "The UNHCR is like our parent. Who would look after us after the withdrawal?" asks Moti Bishwa, an inhabitant of Beldangi Camp II. Refugees are already feeling a sense of insecurity. UNHCR officials have been trying hard to explain that phase-out or withdrawal doesn't mean complete pullout; they are also trying to explain that they won't leave unless a substitute comes in.

"The phase down strategy will not have any impact on UNHCR's presence and protection role in Nepal," said Abraham Abraham, the resident representative of UNHCR in Nepal. The idea behind the UNHCR's phase-out plan is to make the refugees self-reliant through development projects and programs. The plan is ambitious and may be too good to be true. Many think that it simply won't work. Refugees aren't willing to believe that any other agency can substitute the UNHCR in terms of expertise. "Is the UNHCR trying to substitute its mandate?" asked SB Subba, former chairman of Bhutanese Refugee RepatriationRepresentative Committee.

Any change of hands, some say, will be a failure. Even as the appointed time for completion of the phase down strategy draws closer, the UNHCR has made no visible preparations; there is no word on who's going to step in. Initially it was expected GTZ, JICA and USAID would chip in, but American diplomats in Kathmandu have already rubbished the idea of USAID's direct involvement. Even UNHCR officials in the
field don't believe that the 2005 deadline can be met, given the pace of progress. And the Nepali government has criticized the UN refugee agency.

In October last year Foreign Minister Bhek Bahadur Thapa even raised the issue with U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan. "I understand that the UNHCR is having a resource crunch," says Thapa.
"But to paralyze the refugee committee when two countries are negotiating cannot be appreciated." There are other refugee camps in the world with longer standing than the Bhutanese camps in eastern Nepal, he says. "I see the need to be fairer to the refugee community in Nepal."

Despite calls for fairness and continuing support by the government and the refugee community, the Convention Plus initiative is likely to continue. The three-pronged approach—repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement—if adopted by the UNHCR will cause a huge uproar among the refugee community in Nepal. The UNHCR has said that it won't encourage repatriation to Bhutan unless Bhutan allows it
to monitor the process. Bhutan is unlikely to concede to the demand.

"The UNHCR's signals are easy enough to understand," says Rakesh Chettri, a Bhutanese refugee leader: "There won't be any repatriation." Without repatriation, the plan to phase down the UNHCR's role to protection level will increase the sense of insecurity caused by fourteen years of stalemate. "The international community has ignored us," says Chettri. That feeling resonates throughout all seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

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