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US Settlement Offer Provides Hope, Tension Among Nepal's Bhutan Refugees


A U.S. offer to resettle tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan in the 1990's has provided hope to some. But Human Rights Watch says the offer has also created tension between those refugees who wish to accept the offer, and those who insist on returning to Bhutan. Liam Cochrane reports from Kathmandu.

In 1990, the isolated kingdom of Bhutan began expelling ethnic Nepalis, in what Human Rights Watch describes as ethnic cleansing. Bhutan is a predominately Buddhist country, while the Nepalis who were kicked out are Hindus.

Since then, around 100,000 of these refugees have been living in seven camps across eastern Nepal, supported by international aid groups.

Years of negotiations between the Nepalese and Bhutanese governments on taking the refugees back have come to nothing. Nar Bahadur Giri, himself a refugee, says an offer from the United States in October last year to take in 60,000 of those expelled was the first significant breakthrough in 16 years.

"This offer of settlement by the U.S. has given hope to the Bhutanese refugees, and they are now dreaming [of] a better future," he said.

But the U.S. offer has angered those refugees who believe that repatriation to Bhutan should be the only option.

Bill Frelick, the refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, says some opponents of the resettlement plan have been threatening refugee leaders and creating a climate of fear in the camps.

"Two of the camp secretaries - these are the elected leaders within the camps - who had supported, voiced support of resettlement, were issued written death threats that talked about cutting off their heads, putting them in bags, and dumping their bodies in the rivers," he said.

Despite this pressure, Human Rights Watch says that continuing discrimination against ethnic Nepalese makes repatriation to Bhutan impossible at this time. The government of Bhutan lists the country's population as 750,000. That would make the expelled Nepalis a significant portion of the Bhutan population, and Human Rights Watch says the government is afraid of being swamped by non-Buddhists.

Human Rights Watch has called for a multi-faceted solution, involving integrating some of the refugees into Nepal, resettlement of others to the U.S. and other willing countries, and international pressure on Bhutan to allow the remaining refugees to return to their homeland.