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Tens of Thousands of Refugees in Nepal Soon to Head West

The first step in the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees from Bhutan began in Nepal this week. The International Organization for Migration is doing the processing, which could see the refugees ending up in the United States and several other western countries. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi on the first serious progress in one of world's most intractable refugee situations.

The arrangement allowing the refugees to emigrate comes nearly two decades after the first wave of ethnic Nepalese was forced out of the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

The breakthrough came in recent days after the top American diplomat concerned with the issue visited Nepal and Bhutan.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said Thursday that speed is essential to avoid problems. She said communist activists from Bhutan and Nepal have been attempting to stir up trouble in the refugee camps.

"This is a very critical time where there is, certainly, a concerted effort on the part of the

Maoists to infiltrate and radicalize people in the camps," she said. "And this is something that both Bhutan and India are concerned about, and rightfully so."

The communists are promoting the position of many of the refugees, that they should be allowed to return to Bhutan.

Thousands in the Nepalese camps attempted in May to trek back to Bhutan through India, but Indian border guards opened fire, killing at least one of the refugees and injuring 20.

The United States is committed to accepting at least 60,000 of the refugees, with between 30,000 and 40,000 expected to head there by the end of 2009.

Canada has agreed to re-settle 5,000 refugees, while Australia, Denmark, the

Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway say they will take others.

Bhutan says it expelled them because they were illegal immigrants. There has been concern that more non-Bhutanese living in the tiny nation might also be forced to leave.

Sauerbrey says during her visit to the Bhutanese capital this week, she held a rare two-hour meeting with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who promised no further expulsions.

"His Majesty the King assured us they have no thought of expelling their Bhutanese citizens of ethnic Nepalese background," she said.

She was meeting here in New Delhi Thursday to ask India's help in solving the protracted refugee crisis, and to clear the way for the refugees to transit through New Delhi. India, which has considerable influence in both Bhutan and Nepal, has traditionally backed Bhutan's refusal to let the refugees return.

Sauerbrey on Friday heads for the Indian city of Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, where she is due to meet the Dalai Lama.

The United States is also hoping to re-settle thousands of Tibetan refugees who are in Nepal and India. Every year several thousand Tibetans - including monks, nuns and children - escape from Tibet, traveling through treacherous Nepalese terrain to reach India.

Nepal in the past has handed some of the fleeing refugees to Chinese authorities, prompting international condemnation.

U.S. officials say Nepal has also resisted allowing Tibetan refugees to re-settle in the United States, to avoid upsetting Nepal's relations with China.