The Country Representative of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Stephane Jaquemet, who has been serving Nepal’s office from January 4, 2010, has said that if everything goes as per his plans, UNHCR would be able to resettle the vast majority of all interested Bhutanese refugees in the next five years. Jaquemet has taken his position when the former UHCR Chief in Nepal, Daisy Dalle, completed her tenure from July last year.
Before coming to Nepal, he served as the UNHCR Representative in Lebanon, Beirut. Having spent 17 years with UNHCR, Jaquemet has held a number of senior positions both at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva and in other UNHCR offices, including Indonesia, Togo and Croatia. The Swiss national Jaquemet has a strong legal background, and has served as Chief of Protection Capacity Section, Department of International Protection, at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva from 1997 to 2002. In his first detailed interview with media in Nepal, he has talked to Vidhyapati Mishra of Bhutan News Service and Radio Bhutan Online on various relevant issues. Excerpts:
How is resettlement going on?
Jaquemet: The resettlement program for Bhutanese is probably one of the most successful resettlement programs in the world. In 2009, Nepal became the largest resettlement country program in the world before Thailand. Earlier, it used to be Thailand, but now it is Nepal. The fact that we are the largest resettlement shows that it is a successful program. The second thing which makes me conclude this is that the recognition rate is something like 99%, which is extraordinary. For me this is fantastic. The rejection rate is just one percent. There are some pending cases because they need additional documents. And, such a rejection rate is the lowest in the world. In my previous experience, I have seen 20 % recognition rate, 60 % recognition rate for some nationalities. I am extremely happy with the progress of the Bhutanese refugees.
As regard to rejection, there were several cases esp. from the US. But, as the time passed on, the rejection cases have been reduced, while some of them reconsidered.
Jaquemet: If I am not mistaken, this year there is not even a single case of rejection. Some people are on hold to provide additional information, but I am not aware of any cases of rejection by the Americans this year. But you know this is normal when we involve such a large mass. A few people might have criminal records. If you have a criminal record you don’t expect resettlement country to accept you. There might be other reasons like some people not explaining what has exactly happened to them. There might be some credibility concerns. But, I would say it is very low. One percent of people not being finally accepted which means 0.2 to 0.3 percent will end up being rejected. So, for me the question is not why some people have been rejected; the question should be why so few people are rejected. It is exceptional. Download word file
The general perception in the camps is that it is the UNHCR that rejects or accepts the cases. Is it the resettlement country that sets different criteria either to accept or reject the refugees?
Jaquemet: The UNHCR submits their cases. But, there is an interview for every single country. They organize missions to Damak and to the various camps to interview people. The decision is not based on UNHCR’s submission but on the interview with resettlement countries. So UNHCR’s role is to submit and the resettlement countries take their own independent decision. You don’t have a single case just accepted on the basis of the UNHCR’s recommendation. It is based on the interview and what refugees stated in their interviews. Listen the audio
There are rumors in camps that resettlement program would stop in the middle. People fear that the United States may not resettle all 60,000 refugees. What do you say?
Jaquemet: I am bit surprised. It’s normal when you are in a refugee camps for 19 years. You are concerned about your future. So there are such rumors. The truth is that there is no cap to submission. UNHCR will submit cases as long as there is an interest on refugees. Thus, there is no 2011 or 2012 limit. We will continue and submit the cases as along they express an interest on the ‘first applied first served’ basis. This is what we have been doing and will continue. I do not think that the process would stop for a number of reasons.
Bhutan has not been well encouraged to return the refugees though we push for it. The local integration in Nepal has not been offered by the Nepalese authority. Only the way to have better life for the people is to go for resettlement. So, it continues.
Jaquemet: We had for nine months the Maoist government in the past. We even obtained assurances during that time that they would not disturb resettlement. The ball kept on rolling during their government in Nepal.
There is absolutely no reason for any government in Nepal to block the resettlement process. Do you think Nepal wants to have 70,000 refugees for another three generations? Nepal wants a solution to the problem. I think this is one issue which is not controversial among the political parties. I am absolutely certain that every single political party supports resettlement. Therefore, I do not think the change of government will affect the ongoing process at any cost.
What is your target to refer the cases annually? How is your office working?
Jaquemet: We have already submitted many people for approval. The way ahead also depends upon the situation. We have submitted the cases more than the resettlement countries can absorb at the moment. Annually, we are submitting around 20,000 cases. It is important to understand the absorption capacity of the resettlement countries and how many cases they can take every year. Download word file
We have some 78, 000 refugees left in the camp. At the moment, some 22,000 people are still undecided. But, every month we have around 1,000 to 1,500 new registrations for resettlement. Based on this, probably more than 90 percent would declare their interest at the end. If 15,000 depart every year, it means 75,000 will go in the next five years.
UNHCR has been accused of not being capable of disseminating first hand information to refugees. Many refugees are still undecided whether or not to opt for resettlement. How do you comment on this?
Jaquemet: There are information campaigns being carried out in all camps, not in Damak. I agree with you that there is a group of people, who will be, let’s say, less accessible. We need to target these people. We have become the first resettlement program in the world. We have to realize that three years ago there was no resettlement. Until two years we had the groups opposing the resettlement. But two years later we have more than 30,000 refugees who have already departed. I think people have to bear with us. We have to go step by step.
There are some people in the camps who have not been reached by the UNHCR regarding resettlement program.
Jaquemet: The first important thing was to have the machinery go moving. When we have the machinery moving and several cases being processed, then we need to be more specific. And we need to target the problematic cases. It is true that there are either individual cases or we don’t have access to them. This should be the focus as of now. But, the first part was to work with the resettlement countries to see people departing, etc. First, we wanted to have a mass approach and to have the program running. When the program functions, we need to see all the sides work. We need to go out of the main way. I mean, if you have the country without road, what do you do? You, probably, build a big road crossing the country and then you branch up to reach the villages. Yes or no? That is what we are doing. Now we need to the villages. We have received better information on such groups. We do have more ways of reaching them by now.
There are many people in camps whose process have been halted in middle and they are unaware of reasons behind that. They blame the UNHCR local staffs of not being cooperative. Do you admit that your local staffs in Damak are uncooperative?
Jaquemet: I am sure there are always exceptions. I don’t think that is true. I am sure you have spoken to a few people who are not necessarily happy because I have also spoken to a lot of people and majority of them are happy with the treatment. As we progress easily the cases are done.
But I think we need to work on that. As we move forwards and as the time passes we have more problematic cases. Let me give you a typical example of domestic violence: a husband beats his wife; shall we submit the case for resettlement? We definitely need to investigate such matter and need to take a decision that is on the best interest of such refugees. This is a case which is more complicated than a straight forward family.
We have the families with the divided opinions where the younger generation wants to resettle and the older generation not. We also have families where the elderly people neither want to resettle nor do they want to send their younger generation. These are the complicated cases. Within the time one complicated case takes to get solved, ten normal cases can be solved. At the same time, the resettlement countries expect a submission of about 1500 cases a month. So, it could be the people with such complicated cases who complain of the responses by the staff. But, as the time passes we will have more time to deal such cases. We have hotline service in Damak and complaint boxes are installed in at the UNHCR and IOM offices and all the camps. You can either call at the hotline or put your complaint in the box and lodge any complaint against any one. You can also directly write to us. You can either disclose your name or remain anonymous.
I also understand the difficulties of the elderly people. If you are 20 or even 30 you have the energy to learn a new language. But if you are 80, your desire is probably to go back and die in Bhutan. It’s normal. Why should you go to the US and die in an environment which is not yours knowing that the children will be more and more detached from you and its much difficult to have the traditional way of living. I think it will take a lot of time for the UNHCR to reach these people and we want the refugees to take their own decision. As a UNHCR representative, I do not want to be accused of manipulating the people. Beyond accusation, it’s also the question of ethical matter. I only need to objectively tell the people what the options are. And they make their own mind up. Download word file
Resettlement is said to have invited frustration among several refugees since they are either undergoing through a lengthy process or they are uncertain of their chance to be resettled or due to family separation. What is your comment?
Jaquemet: There is frustration. I have noticed it myself when I was there in the camp last time. So, I can not deny this fact. For 17 years people were living in the camps with no hope. Then suddenly, the resettlement program started in 2007. More than 30,000 people have been resettled so far. In the next six years, we may be able to resettle almost everybody. So, in one hand we have 17 years of waiting. And in some eights years, we probably can close the camps. So, it is that long?
I am not that objective. The frustration is there because if you are a young guy or a middle- aged, every year you wait is a year lost. So, I understand the frustration. But, nothing we can do in the sense that we already have a huge commitment from the part of resettlement countries. They will not be able to go quicker. We have been trying to process the people faster. But, we are dependent on the reception arrangements in the various countries. If we go quicker, people will reach new places without such arrangements. So, addressing the frustration is to talk to the people and listen to their concerns and make sure that they have access to English language classes, computer classes, etc. But, there will be always frustration since it is a part of human nature. I think, it compound with the fact of living in camps, which is difficult.
How about scheduling a fixed timeline for the process?
Jaquemet: Of course. But, if a refugee applies today, we cannot schedule his interview for tomorrow since there is a long waiting list. So, those applying today will probably have to wait another two to three years. But, I am sure that Bhutanese refugees will have 99 percent acceptance. So, everybody will get the chance, sooner or the later. The best way to address their frustration is to tell them the truth. I want to make them happy, but I can’t. And, I can’t because there is a process. We can push maximum cases of around 1500 a month. When we have a queue of 30,000, you must be at the end of the list. If two persons apply at the time, one can even go very earlier than the other since the processing depends on the nature, structure and complexity of individual cases.
It is a fact that some refugees receive a notice at the eleventh hour stating that their flight has been cancelled or process halted indefinitely after undergoing through a long process for months. How do you take this issue?
Jaquemet: We are not dealing with departure. It is the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that does this work. As soon as people have been accepted, it is the IOM’s concern to prepare for the travel. I don’t know why it happens. So, this is a question for IOM, but what I know is that such cases are exceptional and IOM does whatever feasible to process cases quickly.
How are you dealing with cases of family separations?
Jaquemet: In case of separated families, we will, as much as possible, try to reunite them in the same country.
What about resettlement in United Kingdom?
Jaquemet: The United Kingdom has just accepted 100 persons and the first departure departed on August 9.
How are you taking the concerns of refugees without registration in camp for receiving agencies’ support for their livelihood?
Jaquemet: There are unregistered people. We have requested the Government of Nepal to register these people or at least put into the place a system by which they can be interviewed and, of course, we need to access whether they are the Bhutanese or not. If they are genuinely Bhutanese, they should have access to assistance and resettlement. This would solve the problem.
People are coming up with different figures on unregistered refugees. Some go as high as 40,000. What is the real figure?
Jaquemet: Such a figure is ridiculous. We can never achieve this figure unless we include Nepalese people in the process. I think, our record shows the maximum of 3,000.
When will the registration start then?
Jaquemet: I hope in the coming weeks. It is not good to have people unregistered. We cannot wait another 2-3 months. We need to move ahead quicker.
They have started various protest programs demanding re-registration. How do you react to it?
Jaquemet: Well, we have limited number of people involved in the protest. It’s not a big movement. But, we are concerned. We’d like to go ahead with registration. And, it does not mean that they all will be registered. We need to assess if they are genuine Bhutanese.
Despite our health system being one of the best among all the refugee camps in the world, it has come to our knowledge that there are instances of negligence in referral and treatments. Due to delay in referral to a better hospital, a girl of 17 years died in Khudunabari recently. What do you say?
Jaquemet: The death of a 17 year old girl is a tragedy. If there is a problem in the number of cases like that, we are always happy to have the name and the facts. We’ll look into the cases and make sure that they have access to assistance because the principle is that everyone should have access to medical treatments. And, if it does not work, we have to follow up on these cases.
Incidents of violence including shooting continue in camps. How do you comment on security situation in camps?
Jaquemet: There has been isolated incidence of violence including the last shooting. We are following up with the police and have some useful information about the case which I can’t disclose because of confidentiality. We are taking measures to make sure that the people who have been targeted are getting protected. I don’t think that in general terms there is more violence in camps. When you have some specific individuals being targeted, such cases make the UNHCR worry. It was the case in the previous incidence. We’ll have to work with the Armed Police Force for it. But definitely, if we conclude that one specific individual is at risk, we will find a way of protecting the person possibly through urgent resettlement as a way of protecting the person. We need to be serious about it.
A lot of irregularities including bribery by the local staffs and police working for the refugees have been reported, especially in preparing resettlement related documents. How is UNHCR monitoring these incidences?
Jaquemet: We would be very happy to follow up the case if you give us the details of such incidences. It should not happen in camp.
There are some Nepali or Indian women married to refugee men. Even their children born with refugee husbands are registered. But, women lack citizenship of their country of origin since their parents died in young age or these women are unable to trace out their parents’ family due to various reasons (and they are non-Bhutanese). How will they be counted during registration and resettlement?
Jaquemet: Nepali or Indian woman who is married to a Bhutanese man is eligible for resettlement and so there is no discrimination against these people. A number of such cases have been submitted. The problem is that, at the end of the day, they cannot be registered as refugees since they are not Bhutanese. What UNHCR can do is to register them as a dependent on the registered refugees and then submit them for resettlement.
And, we will probably have to work for their document, the citizenship certificate, whether that’s possible or not. Otherwise, we have to negotiate with the resettlement country how we can document them. Again, those cases are extremely complicated so it explains why is very often pending on resettlement. We consider we have responsibility towards such people because at the end of the day we have the principle of the family unity which is one of the core principles of the refugee law. Because they have been depending on refugees, we have to do something for them. Listen the audio
Many students are less motivated to go to school because of uncertainty over their resettlement. When the resettlement is on the full swing, students’ performance is declining drastically in camp schools. How do you react to the situation? What measures does UNHCR opt to encourage students continue to go to school?
Jaquemet: I think this is one of the side effects of resettlement, which in all other aspects is positive. One general problem in resettlement is that the youths lose their focus. There is only one objective in life, that’s resettlement. They forget about education. Some forget about health. Some people are very anxious. There are sicknesses related to resettlement. Resettlement has changed the whole dynamic of refugee camp. We have noticed that many teenagers really have problem of focusing on their education. Children are managing somehow. We ourselves have very big problem of providing good education because we lose good teachers in resettlement.
Is resettlement a gift from the international community and UNHCR or an opportunity that refugees have right to exercise?
Jaquemet: In international law, there is no right to be resettled. Resettlement is an offer by a number of countries. Of course, UNHCR can recommend. But, these are independent countries. Today they prefer Bhutanese; tomorrow, they may change mind and choose other nationalities. There is no legal obligation to accept people on resettlement. International law puts an obligation on a country to accept asylum seekers and not to send them back but is not obliged to resettle them.
How does UNHCR decide which country would a refugee go to?
Jaquemet: Well, we take into account many things-the profiles of the country, the types of medical facilities like which country provides the best medical care for the refugees etc. In some cases, the resettlement countries, of course, may have a request. When a family has come to a country to facilitate, the rest of the family will go to the same country as much as possible. However, when 87% of the case load goes to the US, the choices are limited. It means that the vast majority of people go to USA and so far they are happy.
It is said that UNHCR is giving less priority to repatriation but focusing only on resettlement. Please comment.
Jaquemet: I don’t think that we have prioritized resettlement but, at the moment it’s only realistic. I am sure you know what the position of the Government of Bhutan is. You know voluntary repatriation should be based on its principle. We don’t want people to return as a second class citizen. We don’t want people to return as non-citizens. We need to have a guarantee by Bhutan that if the refugees return they will return with full citizenship, with their human rights respected. Short of that, we are not going to promote repatriation because we have so far no such guarantee.
We promote resettlement because we have the guarantee by the resettlement countries that people will be accepted, that they will have a legal status in the country, they will have the right to work, they will have the right to own property, and eventually, they will even be able to become the citizens of the country. They may continue to be Bhutanese but they will have an access to all the rights including the citizenship of that country.
We believe that in the resettlement countries, they are treated as human beings with fundamental human rights. Do you want to go to Bhutan with the risk of being expelled again? Do you want to return to Bhutan if you have limited rights? I don’t think so. And, you cannot blame the UNHCR for not promoting voluntary repatriation. I don’t think that UNHCR is biased. On one hand we have full commitment from the resettlement countries that they respect refugees and on the other hand, we have no commitment at all from the Bhutanese authority. We can start serious discussions. But so far, there has been no proposal at all except the usual statements that they are not the Bhutanese refugees, they are Nepalese that they are illegal immigrants, and so on. As long as Bhutan says the refugees are Nepalese, it’s not a good starting point.
Do you mean that UNHCR will interfere if refugees choose to return at their own initiative?
Jaquemet: We would not prevent people from taking individual decision if somebody can negotiate with the authority to go back. We would not challenge that because everybody has the right to return to her or his own country.
As an institution we first warn the people under what conditions they are returning. Then we may have to warn people that there may be a danger. But, it’s their decision. UNHCR is not closing other doors. UNHCR will continue having the discussions with the Bhutanese and Nepalese authorities. But what we are saying now is, honestly, we cannot offer anything for the people except resettlement. That’s what we are telling to people. We are not telling people they must go for resettlement. We are telling them that we have been able to negotiate with the resettlement countries but we have never been able to negotiate with Bhutan. If you don’t want to go for resettlement, you have to realize that may be it will not be possible for you to go back to Bhutan. You may not be able to legalize your stay in Nepal as a resident.
What will be the fate of those who do not want to get resettled eventually?
Jaquemet: We will need to discuss this with the authority. I think it will be too early to give an analysis to the question. We’ll have to see how resettlement process evolves and how many people remain in the camps. We will consider that we have responsibility to help find a solution to these people. I can guarantee that in one to four years to come, we will continue to assist the people. However, I cannot guarantee the people that if 500 or1000 remain in 2025, there will still be this system. At one point, we will have to sit with all stakeholders and discuss all these.
You even once talked about merging of camps into one.
Jaquemet: If we have 5000 people, it doesn’t make a sense to have seven camps. Logistically, it’s too costly to have seven camps if you have reduced population. So, at one point we have to merge the camps and we’ll have to close some of the camps. We will do it progressively; we will discuss with the refugees. But, what I asked people at Khudunabari and some of the camps is if they wanted the same level of services or remain where they are. If they want same level of services, we have to close some of the camps. It’s unavoidable because the international communities will not give us same amount of money for 50,000 which they used to give for 100,000. The funding will go down. So we have to make the best use of the funding.
You may be aware that we have been voluntarily running media in exile. We do not have any form of identification due to which we have difficulties in collecting and disseminating information. Is there anything that UNHCR can do to ease our reporting by issuing some supporting documents?
Jaquemet: I don’t think UNHCR can recognize you as a journalist as this is a decision by a sovereign country. UNHCR can only certify you are a refugee. If you work for the UNHCR, you may be issued such documents. Otherwise, we unfortunately have no such provisions to support your journalism in camps. Additionally, the federation of journalists in Nepal may listen to your concerns, but not UNHCR, which is not a sovereign State.
(Tejman Rayaka Mongar from Germany, Ichha Poudel from Australia, TP Mishra and Kazi Gautam from the United States of America contributed during the “audio-to-text transcribing process” for the interview.)