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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Breakthrough for Bhutan refugees?
By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Refugees in the Beldangi II Extension camp
The refugees have been 'forgotten' by the rest of the world

An announcement earlier this week by the US that it is prepared to take in up to 60,000 refugees from Bhutan living in camps in the east of Nepal could mean an end to one of South Asia's longest-standing refugee problems.

But US officials and diplomats caution that there are many hurdles to be overcome if the camps are to be closed down for good.

They point out that any agreement for the refugees to move to a "third country" would require the consent of the refugees themselves and the consent of the Nepalese government - by no means a foregone conclusion.

UN officials say that while some refugees would relish the chance of a new life in the US, others are determined that they should be allowed to return to Bhutan.


"On the face of it, this is a significant breakthrough," said a spokesman for the US embassy in Kathmandu.

"We offered the refugees a home because we wanted to find a durable solution to one of the world's most protracted and most ignored refugee problems.

"America has always provided a sanctuary to the homeless and dispossessed."

Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs
It has been a very long, protracted situation: for nearly 20 years we have been unable to get the political differences... resolved
Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs

Officials say that Canada and Australia have also offered homes to some of the 106,000 refugees who arrived in Nepal 16 years ago to escape what they said was persecution at the hands of the Bhutanese authorities.

Most belong to the minority Lothsampa ethnic group, accused by Bhutan of being illegal immigrants. The refugees say they were stripped of their citizenship by Bhutan or expelled after campaigning for democracy.

International human rights groups called their removal "one of the largest ethnic expulsions in modern history".

Last year refugee leaders told the BBC of their despair over their lives in the camps, which had led to a rising number of suicides.

High-level consultations

The occupants of the camps depend on World Food Programme rations, and while some do casual jobs, officially paid work is forbidden both inside and outside the camps.

"It has been a very long, protracted situation: for nearly 20 years we have been unable to get the political differences between the government of Nepal and Bhutan resolved," said Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs.

Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
The refugees rely on food handouts from the UN

She said that the two governments had undertaken no less than 15 high-level consultations to resolve the issue.

But none has borne fruit, and talks for the last two years have stalled with only a tiny handful of refugees returning to Bhutan.

"The US has now come forward and said we are willing to resettle a substantial part of this population," Ms Sauerbrey said.

UN officials say that if the refugees decide to take up the offer from the US, the whole process will take time. They will need to fill in copious amounts of paperwork and get permission from Nepal to leave the country.

"No-one seems to be sure exactly how the refugees will react to leaving Nepal for a third country," a UN official said.

"While many may jump at the opportunity to leave the camps, others will argue that if there is a split in the refugee movement - with some going and some staying - they will lose the opportunity to return to Bhutan for ever."

'More negotiations'

Refugee woman weaving
Some refugees would welcome a chance to re-locate

Some analysts say that it is for this reason that the Nepalese government has in the past been reluctant to allow the refugees exit permits to leave the country, because it wants to maintain pressure on Bhutan to re-admit them.

But US officials say the fact that the government recently allowed the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to conduct a census in the refugee camps was a positive sign, because this is necessary prior to resettlement in a third country.

If Nepal does allow them to go, UN officials say that the US authorities will only allow the refugees to enter America on an incremental basis of around 10,000 a year.

"An optimistic assessment suggests that it will take five years for the refugees to be re-located," an UN spokesperson in Kathmandu said, "but a pessimistic assessment suggests it could take up to eight years.

"Whatever the case, there is likely to be an awful lot more negotiations before this offer is finalised and the camps are finally closed down."

Despair of Nepal's unwanted exiles
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Bhutan and Nepal in refugee deal
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UN urged to resolve refugee crisis
10 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Nepal and Bhutan discuss refugees
26 Mar 03 |  South Asia
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18 Feb 03 |  South Asia
Bhutan refugee screening slammed
19 Jun 03 |  South Asia

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