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Church Workers Criticize Bhutan´s Categorization Of Refugees


January 29 2004

Church workers in Nepal say the Bhutanese government´s categorization of Bhutanese refugee camp residents and conditions for their return show it is not serious about repatriating them.

More than 100,000 refugees from Bhutan, most of them ethnic Nepalese, live in seven camps in and around Damak, about 280 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu. They fled Bhutan beginning about 1990, saying they were persecuted or expelled due to their ethnicity despite being Bhutanese citizens. Bhutan claims most of these people are Nepali citizens who had migrated to Bhutan.

In 2003, Bhutanese officials along with Nepalese counterparts completed verification of 3,158 families comprising 12,183 individuals, in the Khudunabari camp. They were classified into four groups: Category One for genuine Bhutanese, Category Two for Bhutanese who voluntarily migrated, Category Three for non-Bhutanese and Category Four for criminals.

Seventy-four families were classified as Category One, 2,182 families as Category Two, 817 as Category Three and 85 as Category Four.

According to Father Varkey Perekkatt, field director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Nepal, only Category One refugees were entitled to return to Bhutan and have their citizenship restored immediately.

Category Two refugees -- 8,595 people, or 71 percent of the camp´s population -- would be allowed to return on the condition that they fluently read, spoke and wrote Dzongkha, Bhutan´s national language. In addition, they would have to undergo a two-year probation before reapplying for citizenship, Father Perekkatt told UCA News.

Category Three refugees had no chance of repatriation, while Category Four refugees could return but would be arrested upon entering Bhutan, he said.

The refugees rejected the results and agencies assisting them as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed to Bhutan to review its decision. Six months later, on Dec. 22, 2003, the Bhutanese team led by Sonam Tenzing announced the results of the review.

Father Perekkatt said the only things different from the original decision were minor changes in the conditions for repatriation of Category Two refugees, mainly that they need not read and write Dzongkha, only speak it.

"We were simply shocked" that there was no change in the "four preposterous categories," the Indian priest remarked.

Nepalese media reported that a "scuffle" the day of the announcement injured two Bhutanese officials, a policeman and several refugees. Media also reported a planned repatriation of eligible refugees on Feb. 15 is unlikely to proceed.

Father Robert Cutinah, a JRS team member in Nepal, told UCA News the "reviewed terms and conditions" gave "enough whiffs of (Bhutan´s) intention to procrastinate the issue and finally foil repatriation of all sorts."

Similarly, Kamala Chetri, deputy refugee secretary of Khudunabari camp, whose family has been classified as Category Two, told UCA News on Jan. 15 that the concessions were "only a farce."

Chetri, 41, argued that with the terms and conditions imposed on Category Two refugees, they would not enjoy even basic human rights such as rights to education, social security, job opportunities, adequate medical care or freedom of movement for two years, until they regained their citizenship. She said they would be confined in settlements until then and only one member of each family would be given a daily wage job in road construction.

More fundamentally, Chetri argued that Category Two refugees had not given up their Bhutanese citizenship voluntarily. "We fled the country to save our lives. At the border the Bhutanese army threatened to kill us if we did not sign some blank papers," she said. Other camp residents say Bhutanees soldiers or officials confiscated their identity documents.

Concerning refugees in the other two categories, Loreto Sister Anne Marie said it is hard to believe that 24 percent of the residents in the Khudunabari camp -- those put in Category Three -- could be "non-Bhutanese" whose "sham claims" went undetected. She told UCA News "UNHCR would have given them refugee status only after duly verifying their credentials," and is not likely to have made so many errors.

Sister Anne Marie works with JRS as does Sister Gemma of the Sisters of the Child Jesus and Mary, who decried the classification of 347 refugees as "criminals." Not only people accused of crimes "but all the members including women, children and the aged of the families of such alleged criminals have been clubbed together," she told UCA News. "Even their kids born in the refugee camps in Nepal have been branded as criminals," she said.

Father Perekkatt also pointed out that it took three years to verify and categorize the refugees in one camp alone. "So we can only hopelessly conjecture how many decades it would take to verify and decide the parameters for repatriating the remaining 90,000 refugees in the other six camps," he said. According to the JRS director, some 52,000 refugees are below 25 and at least 25,000 have been born in the camps.

He said Nepal could not afford the minimum yearly cost of US$15 million to maintain the refugees if donors pulled out. "We look to India to help find a just solution to this long-standing humanitarian crisis," he said, noting that India gives some 80 percent of the international aid going to Bhutan.

The Jesuit priest said he has written to the Catholic bishops and human rights activists in India asking them to take up the refugees´ cause. He is also trying to arrange for refugee representatives to travel to New Delhi to apprise members of the Indian parliament.

Besides JRS, Caritas Nepal, the local Church´s agency for relief and development work, also assists the Bhutanese refugees in eastern Nepal. The two Church organizations are responsible for schools and educational programs for 33,180 primary and 6,412 secondary students in the seven refugee camps.