When the Joint Verification Team (JVT), set up by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal after seven years of dialogue, first set foot in the Lhotshampa refugee camps in January 2001, there was widespread elation. The refugees believed that their deliverance was close at hand. The donor governments and aid agencies, which had collectively brought pressure to bear on the process, were excited that they were finally witnessing the beginning of the end of the decade-old refugee problem. The team’s brief was to verify the bona fides of the refugees in the camps, and their claim of being from Bhutan. Himal, however, had a word of caution (“Indeed, if the Bhutanese side does not drop its insistence on this sticky and messy issue, the verification exercise cannot be expected to go far. (Unless, of course, Nepal is willing to go by anything that Bhutan says.)”, ‘Dark Clouds Behind the Silver Lining?’ — March 2001)] Sadly, more than two long years later, the caution, especially about Kathmandu’s willingness to sign on the dotted line as requested by Thimphu, has proved well-founded.
In an interminably slow process, between 10 March and 15 December 2001, the JVT managed to complete the verification of refugees in just one of the smaller camps, known as Khudunabari in Jhapa district. It took forever to interview the camp’s 12,183 inmates, frustrating them as well as the larger refugee community. With more than a hundred thousand refugees living in six camps, simple calculation showed that the interview process alone would take eight years to complete.
But worse was to follow. For more than a year after that there was no further JVT activity. No thought was given to informing the refugees interviewed as to the outcome, a case of human rights abuse that went unremarked. The Nepali side sat back, letting the Bhutanese take the proactive role. For the latter, this was yet one more occasion to equivocate as has been its practice ever since the international community awoke to the need to address the Lhotshampa refugee problem more than a decade ago.
It was only after Bhutan came under pressure once again at the Eighth Roundtable Meeting of Bhutan’s donors, held in Geneva in mid February this year, that the team sat down to its task. The JVT released its report on 17 June following its approval by the 14’h Ministerial Joint Committee (M1C); which met in Kathmandu between 19 and 22 May 2003.
The report stunned everyone, other than perhaps the JVT members with foreknowledge, and dismayed of refugees and the international community (even those who have been generally supportive of the Thimphu government). The JVT announced that of the 12,183 refugees interviewed in the Khudunabari camp, only 2.4 per cent (293) had been slotted under ‘category one’ (Bhutanese who had been forcibly evicted) and had the right to return home; 70.5 per cent were categorised as Bhutanese that had emigrated voluntarily and who would have a chance to return and reapply for Bhutanese citizenship after two years; 24 per cent were categorised as non-Bhutanese and would be returned to their respective countries; and 3 per cent (375) as ‘criminals’ who would have to stand trial in Bhutanese courts.
The first travesty was for Kathmandu to agree to go through with the verification exercise at all, but the final blow was concurring with Thimphu that the overwhelming majority of refugees had left Bhutan voluntarily, which means that under Bhutan’s what-can-only-be-called medieval laws they would ipso facto lose citizenship
The release of categorization figures was accompanied by the announcement of some startling agreements between the two governments. Among them, first, Kathmandu agreed with Thimphu’s pre-conditions attached to their willingness to take back ‘voluntary emigrants’ (that they would be allowed to reapply for Bhutanese citizenship after two years of waiting). Second, in the event that these refugees did not wish to return to Bhutan, Nepal would grant them Nepali citizenship. Third, the appeals process only allowed for 15 days and involved going back to the same JVT which had made the decision in the first place.
Not surprisingly, the categorisation results and joint agreement have been met with disbelief and a spate of criticism. While refugees are incensed with the categorisation process itself, commentators in Nepal have taken strong objection to and questioned the validity of Kathmandu’s agreement to grant nationality to refugees. The international community, meanwhile, has focused its attention on the pre-conditions and the appeals process
In a joint statement, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Lutheran World Federation, Refugees International, the U.S. Committee for Refugees, and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, called on donor governments and governments in the region to increase pressure on the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to find a just and fair solution to this long-standing refugee crisis.
“This decision sends a message to other governments that it is legally acceptable to arbitrarily deprive a whole ethnic group of their nationality, expel them from their country, and then refuse to accept them back,” said Ingrid Massage, interim director of the Asia and Pacific program at Amnesty International.
Western diplomats in Kathmandu were also unusually outspoken in their criticism of the agreement and advised that it be reviewed by the two governments. The ambassadors of the United States and Germany were blunt in their reactions_ In a strongly-worded declaration from Brussels, on 18 July 2003, the European Union expressed serious concerns over the procedures and verification, results, particularly over the citizenship rights of those declared to be ‘voluntary emigrants’. It recommended the involvement of UNHCR or other equally experienced international organisation as an independent and impartial monitor for all remaining verification cases and of all appeals, and reinforced the need for both Bhutan and Nepal to respect international law and human rights.
Ever since Kathmandu agreed, very foolishly, in 199.3 to Thimphu’s proposal to categorise people in the camps into four categories, Lhotshampas in exile have objected to the process, questioning the rationale and legality of one government (Nepal) getting involved in determining the status of citizens of another country (Bhutan). It seems inconceivable that a ruse thrown up by Bhutan merely to prolong the bilateral talks should have been so spectacularly successful. Even the Bhutanese must have been shocked when the Nepali delegation, back in 1993, readily agreed to the categorisation. Besides the fact that it was used effectively to delay the start of the verification process for seven long years — because skillfully inserted into the agreement by the Bhutanese was a pre-condition requiring the two sides to “harmonise” their positions on what would happen to each of the four categories before start of field verifications – the JVT results for Khudunabari highlight all the problems that the exiled community has warned about from the very beginning.
It is reported that members of the same family have been slotted into different categories, infants have been categorised as ‘criminals’, and children have been labeled as non-Bhutanese because the committee of village elders (back in Bhutan!) were not in a position to vouch for them. It is unclear how the Nepali team members were satisfied that they had come to a fair conclusion. How did they determine there was no force, threat or coercion, what evidence convinced them that a particular individual had committed an alleged crime, what was the basis upon which a person was determined not to be a Bhutanese national? But as long as the Nepali members of the team were willing to be mere accomplices, the large percentage of ‘voluntary emigrants’ was also always on the cards and anyone the Bhutanese side wanted to label a criminal could be slotted into that category.
Much as this farcical exercise has hurt the cause of refugees, for whom chances of an early repatriation still seem remote, one can now at least see the silver lining behind the dark clouds. The international community which has treated Thimphu with kid gloves so far is finally seeing its darker, deceptive side. Up until now, Thimphu had succeeded in fooling the world into believing a delicate culture and simple people are under threat in a Shangrila governed by an honest regime. By pushing through an outrageous agreement that threatens to render most of the hundred thousand-plus refugees stateless it has shown it has both guile and ruthlessness, and that it is the refugees, after all, who need protection.
The major concern is with the 75 percent refugees in the Khundunabari camp identified as voluntary migrants, who are therefore not Bhutanese in Thimphu’s eyes. By extrapolation, the refugees in the other camps will also be categorised in roughly the same proportion. Two points are critically important on this score: First, why should any other country (including Nepal) accept these people just because Bhutanese laws make them illegal? Second, does the fact that they have been categorised as voluntary departures not prove that the Lhotshampas in ‘category two’ were actually legitimate residents of Bhutan till the time of their departure? International legality and humanitarian principles clearly require Bhutan, therefore, to take these people back without pre-conditions.
It seems that an over-confidence in its dealings with Kathmandu’s interlocutors has made the Bhutanese leadership make a critical slip, i.e. agree that there were voluntary departures. Since Nepal’s government itself is now complicit with Bhutan on the verification results, it is now up to the international community to build pressure on Thimphu.
Meanwhile, what of the silent, looming presence of India throughout the dozen years of the Bhutanese refugee crisis? It does not do for New Delhi to remain aloof from this problem any more; for many reasons, the most important of which is India’s own commitment to international legality and humanitarian principles. How long will realpolitic take precedence in geopolitics?