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World Refugee Day and Bhutan’s Exception

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Today, June 20 is World Refugee Day. While this is not an exciting day for those countries that produce refugees and statelessness, yet to them as well the world refugee communities, observing the world refugee day is a stark reminder that these refugees are human beings and belong to the planet as much as those who claim exclusive rights to land and nationality.

Of the world’s 68.9 million displaced people, approximately 26 million are refugees worldwide. The largest proportion of them lives in Turkey, followed by Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, Iran, Germany, Bangladesh and Sudan.

Nepal that generously accepted tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees is hardly traceable in the news. Ironically, this day should also remind us that Bhutan is one of the highest producers of refugees by ratio. Sadly, Bhutan has always gotten away with its atrocities and injustice done against its own innocent Nepali-ethnic and Sharchop populations.

Bhutan has failed miserably in respecting UN conventions to protect its citizens in the early 1990s by designing state policies to depopulate the Southern Bhutanese called Lhotshampas through the enactment of several discriminatory laws only to advance its fabricated concept of Gross National Happiness. Shamefully, Bhutan continues to deny any knowledge of the existence of refugees, while in the meantime the regime had termed the evictees ready-made-terrorists.

Almost every one of the Bhutanese refugees resettled in the West has someone back in Bhutan to connect to. Except for the new generations who were born in the refugee camps and in the West, who have no emotional connection to Bhutan, almost all the first generation and the second generation of resettled Bhutanese world-wide hope to go back as visitors or support their relatives economically.  And that benefits Bhutan, too, in many ways.  The Bhutanese refugees, wherever they are now, still call themselves proud Bhutanese which Thimphu elites might find it a sore thumb in its international relations.

An estimated leftover of 7,000 refugees in the camps of Nepal still have high hopes to return home to live dignified lives. Majority of them are likely to refuse Nepal’s offer of citizenship and local assimilation, even if it becomes official one day. While the sufferings and pain caused by the Bhutanese regime is totally political, the regimes everywhere must realize that a tract of land on the Earth does not belong to any group as an exclusive right to create ‘identity zones’ in the name of ‘nationalism’, and deny the same inalienable rights to ‘others’ who have neither political nor military muscle to take on the regimes successfully.

Bhutan cannot continue to ignore the term ‘refugee’ when it comes to its shared responsibility of taking the burden off from its own friends in the West who provide generous support for its development programs. Bhutan must repatriate those who wish to return home from the refugee camps in Nepal and prove that it’s a responsible member of the international community. As we observe World Refugee Day, Thimphu should keep in mind that it is accountable for atrocities it carried against one-sixth of its own population in the 1990s. Of course, it will heal our wounds a bit if repatriation of those longing for it could happen sooner than later. Additionally, it should allow those resettled in the West to visit their relatives in Bhutan freely. The visiting former Bhutanese citizens do not pose any danger to Bhutan as Bhutan has not only the most stringent admittance policy in the world, the visiting former Bhutanese citizens have largely forgotten its atrocities.   If Bhutan gets away with this, as it has been so, we cannot rule out the possibility of a second round of mass exodus because the government still denies citizenship certificates to tens of thousands of Nepali-ethnic Bhutanese under one pretext or the other.  The danger of low profile eviction is always there since Bhutan knows mass exodus can create an international backlash.

We can only wish and hope that Bhutan will soon include its former citizens, who only became refugees because of its policies, in its grand designing and marketing of Gross National Happiness worldwide.

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