I would like to start with two very big “Thank yous”. The first one addressed to the government of Nepal and the host communities in Jhapa and Morang districts who have welcomed, in a very generous manner, and for 20 years, the refugees from Bhutan. Even when there is substantive contribution and unrestricted support from the international community, hosting refugees has a cost for the country and the local communities. It has a cost on the environment, on the infrastructure and social services, and more generally on resources which are limited and not renewable.
My gratitude also goes to the international community, in particular the eight members of the Core Group of resettlement countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; the countries which have earmarked funds for the refugee operation in Nepal. Funding has alleviated a significant part of the burden on Nepal while resettlement has been the key to unblocking the situation and finding a durable solution to the situation. Let’s be frank, without resettlement, we would not be here today. Resettlement has completely changed the equation. While in too many countries, refugee situations become protracted with no hope in sight, Nepal is quite unique as the resettlement option is open to virtually every refugee. There is no other example in the world of such an incredibly generous offer from resettlement countries.
Capitalising on completely new dynamics and a rapidly decreasing refugee population, the Government of Nepal and UNHCR have moved forward together to consolidate some of the camps, close some others and prepare for a long term strategy.
At the peak, some five years back, we had some 108,000 refugees accommodated in seven camps. Today we have slightly less than 67,000 refugees in four camps. Out of this number, some 25,000, i.e. 37 per cent, were born in the camps and have never been to Bhutan. Some 46,000 refugees have departed for a third resettlement country.
Camp consolidation and camp closure is one element of the long-term strategy. The second one—community based development—is more ambitious. It is principled and there is no doubt in my mind that this is the right path to take. I am conscious that it entails the considerable risk of raising expectations with the possibility of not being able to fully deliver. But we are ready to take calculated risks and put in place mechanisms to properly address those risks. What we are proposing is the only way to close the Bhutanese refugee chapter in a respectful and dignified way. Our Community Based Development Programme (CBDP) aims to work towards the inclusion of humanitarian needs in the development agenda, in order to ensure sustained and quality interventions for a much reduced number of refugees from Bhutan and for the surrounding local communities under the leadership of the Government of Nepal and the UN Country Team.
According to our projections based on reliable resettlement departures, mid-2015, there will be “only” 10,000 refugees, while the surrounding impacted local communities will amount to some 325,000 persons. The total number of refugees may even go further down in 2015 and beyond. With these completely changed figures in mind, we believe it is our responsibility to promote through this initiative the peaceful coexistence between refugees and host communities, to call for equal access to public services by both communities and to mainstream refugee issues into the planning cycle of the government. A number of cardinal principles will need to be adhered to: non-discrimination, gender equality, inclusiveness, capacity building of local partners and community participation.
Let’s admit that this CBDP initiative is still very much in its draft form. A number of important steps have been taken but a lot still needs to be done. The main achievement is the completion of the five Joint Needs Assessments which took place between February and May 2011 and have identified some development needs in the refugee impacted areas.
The Joint Needs Assessments were a remarkable inter-agency work, involving all relevant ministries under the leadership and active engagement of the Chief District Officers of Jhapa and Morang, bilateral development agencies, NGOs as well as the UN Country Team. They were also participatory with both refugees and host communities being consulted throughout the process.
The initial list of tentative projects must now be translated into clear priorities and a coherent programme with well-defined benchmarks.
If successful, this initiative will become a model of transition between a humanitarian operation and development work. In that regard, Nepal is quite unique and this is why our Headquarters in Geneva are telling us there may be genuine interest to support the future programme in a number of capitals. Nepal is unique because the Government of Nepal has been engaged during all phases of the operation, first by endorsing resettlement and secondly by moving forward on the initiative. I am proud to say the level of trust and cooperation between the Government and UNHCR is truly outstanding. This operation is also unique because Nepal is the only country where the commitment of resettlement countries is so massive and unrestricted, thus opening the door for a lasting solution to the refugee situation.
You will have noticed that I have not yet mentioned voluntary repatriation to Bhutan. The solution, which many refugees would like to be promoted more forcefully, is also the most elusive one.
We do have a collective responsibility to talk to the Bhutanese authorities and remind them of their obligation. It is not easy and the result so far has been disappointing. But we must continue our efforts and be united. We must coordinate our efforts in the interest of the refugees and support Nepal in that respect.
(This is a speech delivered by UNHCR’s Country Representative Jaquemet on June 13 at a workshop in Kathmandu. The workshop was a Joint Assessment Needs for a Community Based Development Programme (CBD) for the exiled Bhutanese organized by the Ministry of Home Affairs and UNHCR.)