What Makes Refugees Issue So Protracted in Nepal?

With more than a decade of the arrival of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, the prospects of having a durable resolution of the problem are frustratingly looking dimmer. Every refugee has the undeniable right of going back to his or her country of residence. The 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees is considered to be the most defensive legal weapon which protects the rights of the refugees once they are forced to leave their homeland and are registered as refugees in a foreign country. Nepal is perhaps one of the very few countries to host refugees as any other state party to the said UN Convention even without being a signatory.

The case of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal is unique. The origin of the problem and more explicitly-speaking the resolution of the same is predominantly influenced by India, whose territory was made available to fleeing and evicted Bhutanese citizens to enter into another country as refugees. Despite this indirect support provided to the desperate Bhutanese people to cross over into Nepal’s territory, India has always tactfully avoided to play any constructive role in settling the thorny issue of Bhutanese refugees.

On the surface we note that India as a common neighbor of both Nepal and Bhutan and also a fellow member of SAARC has shown diplomatic niceties. India has consistently been saying that it is a bilateral problem and hence needs the resolution through bilateral negotiations. No reason to contest such wise counsel apparently but the reality is otherwise. Any prudent observer of the Bhutanese refugees problem is inclined to ask if India had been really interested to see this imbroglio resolved why would they assist Bhutan to create the same.

In international politics we sometimes see a conflict between a nation’s narrow national interests and the universal ideals. At times the so-called ideals of internationalism are sacrificed at the alter of national interests. We are witnessing such behavior in Arab Spring where the world’s only super power compromises its principles of freedom and democracy to safeguard its national interests. No less selective has been India in its treatment of the issue of Bhutanese refugees, the resolution of which would be far easier through its sincere cooperation. Who doesn’t understand the influence it exerts on Bhutan by dint of its bilateral treaty?

Undisputedly, convergence of strategic interests between the U.S. and India is only making the resolution of the Bhutanese refugees problem in Nepal more complicated. The Americans are still relying on the Indian perception of Nepal and they have not seemingly changed to see the tiny but so strategically-located country in South Asia through the Indian lens. Growing U.S.-India rapprochement hopefully will contribute to prosperity and stability but seeing things from the point of view of Nepal’s national interests, it is a different scenario. Will their bonhomie not add to suspicion of China that the Tibetan refugees in Nepal might be emboldened to pursue Free Tibet agenda more aggressively as was seen in 2008?

The recent visit of Kelly Clements, a U.S. State Department official, to Nepal and the expression of American government’s appreciation that Nepal has facilitated resettlement of Bhutanese refugees and insistence that Nepal government should start re-registration of the Tibetan refugees has only vindicated the apprehension of China. Under the present circumstances, the possibilities of Bhutanese citizens now sheltered in Nepal being allowed to go back to their homeland are almost nil. Geopolitics has also played against Nepal as the U.S. backed by India would be more interested in resettlement rather than Bhutanese refugees’ return to their country of origin.

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