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Forwarded Appeal, 26 September 2003
FA-36-2003: NEPAL: BHUTAN process of assessment of refugee status invalid
NEPAL: universal human rights; Bhutanese refugees
We join the appeal from the Human Rights Watch for URGENT intervention in the current situation in Nepal regarding the assessment of refugee status by the governments of Bhutan and Nepal. Research carried out by a joint mission of non-governmental organisations has found that the screening of Bhutanese refugees by the two governments (Bhutan and Nepal) is “fundamentally flawed” (Kathmandu, September 2, 2003).
The mission visited the Bhutanese refugee camps in southeast Nepal, where more than 100,000 refugees live in seven camps. They have been there since the 1990s, when they were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality and forcibly expelled from Bhutan. Nearly one-sixth of Bhutan’s population was forced to flee the country at that time, making Bhutan one of the highest per capita generators of refugees in the world.
Since March 2001, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal have been screening the refugees in Khudunabari camp (with a population of 12,000), to determine their identities and their reasons for leaving Bhutan. The results of the screening, announced on 18 June 2003, will be used in determining the fate of the refugees.
Serious anomalies and deficiencies in the verification process have been reported by the refugees interviewed by the mission. These failings include:
1 Refugees having to speak to (in order to recount their reasons for leaving Bhutan) officials of the same government that was the reason for their persecution in, and flight from, Bhutan.
2 The criteria for categorising refugees is not in the public domain, so refugees are unable to effectively appeal against the label or classification they have been given.
3 The majority of the refugees (70%) were classified as “voluntary migrants” after signing “voluntary migration forms” under duress when leaving Bhutan. Many refugees in this category told the delegation that they were forced to flee Bhutan because of discrimination, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and threats to their physical safety.
4 In some cases, members of the same family have been placed in different categories, even though their reasons for fleeing Bhutan are identical, so they risk separation in the event of repatriation.
5 Some of the children born in the refugee camps have been classified as “criminals” and could be liable to stand trial in Bhutan.
6 Some refugees, who were minors in Bhutan and therefore not given identity documents, were classified as non-Bhutanese, even though their parents possess identity papers.
7 The joint screening team only interviewed the male heads of households, and not females, thus denying women the opportunity to have their claims fairly considered.
8 There were no women on the joint screening team for most of the review process.
9 Refugees were divided into the following categories:
Category I – Bona fide Bhutanese citizens (293 people – just 2.5 percent of the refugee population);
Category II – Refugees who supposedly “voluntarily” migrated from Bhutan (8,595 people, or 70 percent of the refugees);
Category III – Non-Bhutanese (2,948 people, or 24 percent of the refugees);
Category IV – Refugees who have committed “criminal” acts, including those who participated in the “anti-national” (pro-democracy) activities in Bhutan (347 people, or 3 percent of the refugees).
The Assistant to the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Peter Prove, said that, “This process simply does not stand up to scrutiny under international law,” ¡K “Refugees have been classified as “criminals” in the absence of clear charges or any semblance of a trial, and apparently in punishment for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Category II is similarly flawed. All the refugees classified as “voluntary migrants” told the mission that, under duress, they had signed “voluntary migration forms” when they were expelled from Bhutan. Many were unaware of the content of the forms, and that, under Bhutanese law, signing them would result in the loss of their citizenship.
Ralston Deffenbaugh, the President of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, made the point that “Under international law everyone has the right to leave and return to their own country,” ¡K “Bhutan’s policies clearly violate this right.”.
According to the last round of talks between Bhutan and Nepal in May 2003, refugees in Category II will be required to reapply for citizenship after a minimum probationary period of two years upon returning to Bhutan. But successful applicants will have to meet stringent requirements, including fluency in Dzongkha, which is spoken mainly in northern Bhutan. Since most refugees from Southern Bhutan speak only Nepali, this requirement would mean that tens of thousands of refugees would be unable to re-acquire citizenship and could be rendered stateless.
A fifteenth round of talks between Bhutan and Nepal is due to begin on 8 September 2003. The delegation called on Bhutan and Nepal to address the inconsistencies and inadequacies in the screening process. They urged the following modifications:
1 All refugees in Categories I, II and IV should be able to return to Bhutan in safety and dignity, with full citizenship rights, and to their original lands and properties.
2 Refugees in Category III should have access to a full, fair and independent appeal process.
3 All anomalies in the process (such as members of the same family placed in different categories) must be investigated by an independent third party.
4 Future screening should be through two categories only: Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese.
5 Those classified as Bhutanese should be able to return to Bhutan with full citizenship rights. Those classified as non-Bhutanese should have access to a full, fair and independent appeal process.
6 Women should have full access to the verification process in order for their claims to be independently and fairly assessed, and the Joint Verification Team should include female interviewers.
7 Screening and repatriation should not proceed without the presence of an independent third party. Given its international refugee protection mandate, this should be UNHCR; and refugee representatives should be included at all stages of the repatriation process.
“The international community must insist on a speedy, just, and lasting solution for the Bhutanese refugees,” said Malavika Vartak, of Habitat International Coalition. “They should not endorse or support a process that would violate the refugees’ rights.”.
Members of the delegation:
Rachael Reilly, Human Rights Watch
Peter Prove, Lutheran World Federation
Fr. Varkey Perekkatt S.J., Jesuit Refugee Service
Malavika Vartak, Habitat International Coalition – Housing and Land
Ralston Deffenbaugh, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Please write to the authorities in Nepal urging them to:
i. take all necessary measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of the Bhutanese asylum seekers and refugees;
ii. ensure that they are granted access to legal representation;
iii. intervene with the appropriate authorities as a matter of urgency; to rectify the problem;
v. guarantee an immediate investigation into the circumstances of these events,
vi. guarantee and respect human rights, and uphold fundamental freedoms and universal human rights in accordance with national laws and international human rights standards.
1. Hon. Surya Bahadur Thapa, Prime Minister, Office of the Prime Minister, Singha Durbar, Kathmandu, NEPAL, Tel: +977 1 228555 or 227955, Fax: +977 1 4 227 765 / +977 1 227286, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Ministry of Home Affairs, Human Rights Section, Singha Durbar, Kathmandu, NEPAL Tel: +977 1 4 227 186, Fax: +977 1 4 227 187, Email: email@example.com
3. Mr. Gyan Chandra Acharya, Ambassador to the United Nations, Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Nepal, 81 rue de la Servette, 1201 Geneva, Switzerland, Fax: + 41 22 7332722, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also write to the embassies of Nepal in your respective country.
Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission