The responsibility of nations takes on multiple dimensions when a particular group of refugees bear affinity OT connections with more than one country. Such is the case with the Bhutanese refugees now living in camps of eastern Nepal, many in their fourth year in exile. Linguistically and by origin, they are Nepali; they also have links with India, where their ancestors migrated to first; and they are settled in Bhutan, acquiring Bhutanese citizenship over time. These three dimensions must not be lost when we try for a solution to the Lhotshampa refugee problem.
In times of great stress and uncertainty, a migrant population usually tends to return toits country of origin. Naturally, therefore, when faced with persecution the Lhotshampa fled Bhutan and headed west over Indian territory towards the Nepal border at Kakarbhitta.
As such, Nepal cannot deny the refugees entry or asylum on the plea that its limited resources will be stretched by the extra burden. India, too, must own up its responsibility towards the Lhotshampa in the sense that a) the refugees´ exodus was first into Indian roadheads, and b) it is Bhutan´s public claim that most of these refugees have their origins in the Indian Northeast.
Finally, since most inmates in the Jhapa camps claim to be Bhutanese citizens, Thimpu´sauthorities simply cannot wash their hands of them without providing a convincing rebuttal. The fact that the refugees fled their homes in Bhutanese territory should alone persuade the Drukpa authorities to make adequate arrangement for the safe return of those who request repatriation. All this is easy to say, but hard to put into practice.
The 1951 UNHCR convention which deals with the status of refugees does not properly define the term ´persecution´. The Convention´s Articles 31 and 33 only refer to those “whose life or freedom may be threatened”, leaving a wide margin for interpretation. Cannot discrimination or deprivation with regard to basic rights other than to life and freedom, such as denial of education or means of livelihood, also constitute persecution?
Persecution or forcible eviction cannot be easily proved. When people flee a country en masse, they do so out of fear. And, fear is subjective. How does one quantify it? A 1969 convention adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), at least, lifts the burden of proof from the persecuted. It states: when people are compelled to leave a country to escape violence in general, they do not have to prove that their fear of persecution is “well founded”, as required by the 1951 UNHCR convention.
Many of the refugees in Jhapa fall into this category of people who flee persecution without the ability to ´prove´ it explicitly. They might have been too frightened or ignorant to have brought with them the evid ence of forcible eviction, or even their testimonials to citizenship (except perhaps the identity cards they were issued before 1985, which the Bhutanese authorities unconvincingly claim are forgeries). Many seem to have signed voluntary departure forms after having been made to accept some compensation, and sat meekly for departure photographs in their gho and kira.
From a purely legalistic viewpoint, the substantiation of claims of having being evicted or having Bhutanese citizenship is therefore full of difficulty. In the circumstances, any mechanism to verify refugee categories can only frustrate Nepal in its efforts to ¦send the refugees back to where they came from. Neither can Kathmandu hope for a change in New Delhi´s stance so long as the latter chooses to turn a Nelson´s eye to the happenings in Bhutan or in eastern Nepal.
It would be height of diplomatic folly for Kathmandu—for its own long-term geopolitical interests—to point to the 1949 Bhutan-India Treaty and maintain that New Delhi is treaty-bound to advise Thimpu as regards to its external relations.In other words, Thimpu will own up its citizens only if India asks it to do so. India will not.
Spirit of SAARC
If the bilateral talks do not hold out much hope, and India keeps itself out of the picture, are there not opportunities for the regional organisation SAARC to find a humane solution to a problem which has arisen between two of its members? Before any sovereign, independent stati emerged, peoples of the region moved across the vast span of South Asia to settle in faraway lands in search of livelihood, cultural cohesion and kinship. Population movement has always been an accepted fact of South Asian society. Once the nation-state came into being, however, national boundaries were drawn to obstruct this natural flow of people. At the same time, divergent citizenship laws overnight turned settled populations into disenfranchised strangers and hunted species.
Over centuries, impoverished masses from Nepal and the eastern sector (the two Bengals) have been migrating to the South Asia´s great cities in search of work. Today, they are all known as legal or illegal migrants, who can be shoved across borders at will.
With the emergence of the nation-state has come a set of discriminatory laws against immigrant communities on the basis of their separate language, religion or geographical origin. Such laws would sooner or later be applied for “ethnic-cleansing”. Hence, today we have the influx from Bhutan of Nepali-speaking people; of Tamils from Sri Lanka; of Chakmas from Bangladesh; and of Rohingyas from Myanmar.
What statusdo such people have when they flee? What future will their children face? Poverty and faceless identity? Most South Asian governments claim to be giving top priority to poverty alleviation. So, with over 50 percent of the population below the poverty line, is it proper for them to acquiesce to the creation of yet another category of the destitute born of discrimination — immigrants, non-citizens, and refugees? Is this all that the SAARC countries are capable of, while continuously mouthing truisms about their commitment to removing human misery? And where, indeed, is the much ballyhooed “SAARC Spirit” when it comes to resolving one of the gTavest humanitarian issues if the region that involves not two but three member countries?
The presence of 100,000 refugees from Bhutan on Nepali and Indian soil is a blot on the face of SAARC, even more so because the Lhotshampa refugee problem is one which has arisen after the setting up of the regional organisation. It is not a festering problem which has lingered for decades.
At the root of this new problem in dealing with migrant populations is the Euro-centric concept of refugee, one which the Governments of South Asia also ascribe to. Looking at the situation of the Lhotshampa refugees today and studying the history of population movements in South Asia, one begins to feel the need to radically alter — if not abandon altogether — the very concept of ´refugee´. Does this term fit the context in which South Asian population movements have occurred?
As a term, ´refugee´ springs from the European experience. It originally applied to the French Huguenots who came to England after revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Even the UNHCR´s Convention has a European flavour in-as-much as 17 out of 26 drafting states were European.
Since they accept the concept of ´refugee´, all South Asian governments follow the predictable path of confrontation on the issue of illegal immigrants and refugees. The country which expels a long-settled immigrant population commits in the first place an outright violation of human rights. A second sin when it refuses to own up to such violation. The country which receives an expelled population demands that they be repartriated to the country they came from. In the process, nothing progresses except an exchange of hot words.
What can be the alternative? First,expulsion of the Westernised concept of refugee. Instead, South Asian governments must accept that immigrants and refugees constitute an integral part of the region´s great mosaic of cultures, religions, and languages. Hence, they together share a common obligation towards them. How can this be achieved?
I suggest that SAARC governments hold a convention to confer SAARC citizenship on those termed ´refugees´. Once the criteria are worked out ~ and the convention accepts them— it would become obligatory on the part of signatory states to secure their right to work, to health and education, and to move freely as SAARC citizens. In one word, a guarantee for human existence as distinguished from that of captive animals in quarantine.