Bhutanese refugees and UN celebrations of resettlement.

Eastern Nepal is the home for a significant Bhutanese refugee population who have fled  what the UNHCR calls “ethnic tension”  within the Kingdom of Bhutan.

In a nutshell the situation in Bhutan resides around ethnic Nepali (Lhotshampas), whom have lived in the Kingdom of Bhutan since around 1900. Lhotoshampas make up about 53 per cent of the Kingdom’s population, the minority Ngalongs   at 17 per cent run the show with the Sharchop at 30 per cent  are caught somewhere in the middle. Those of Nepali origin have been harassed out of the country of 1.9 million (rape and murder seems to be the main tools of engagement) and over the border into eastern Nepal with the remaining “Nepali” middle classes becoming highly politicised and in some cases militant with interactions with Nepali and Indian Maoists groups. ( For more information check out the South Asian Terrorism Portal run by the Institute for conflict management here.)

Currently 72,000 Bhutanese refugees live in camps near the shared Nepali /Bhutan border. This figure has been reduced from 108,000 due to a resettlement program which the UNHCR (The United Nation’s refugee branch) runs. This success of resettlement was celebrated today in Kathmandu. For some reason the celebration of this resettlement program to Western nations such as the United States and New Zealand has me a bit irked.

Why is a UN run program celebrating the likely scenario that 40,000 Bhutanese so far re-settled will most probably never see their home again? Why is this UN program addressing the symptoms and not the cause of the plight of these displaced Bhutanese? To be fair the UNHCR states they will continue with  the international community to look into other options  such as repatriation when viable though in reality this is UN speak for maintaining the status quo.

This is my main concern  – we now live in a world where to live in your country of birth is no longer a right nor is it guaranteed that you will have a right of return if displaced. A world where the international agencies meant to deal with situations  such as  what is faced by  those fleeing from Bhutan have very few options. The UN and the international community as a whole seem reluctant to help refugee or displaced populations whose country of origin is not resource rich. It appears the inability for the UN to address the cause of displacement is being celebrated by celebrating the re-settlement of these 40,000 Bhutanese refugees – admittedly in a non-direct manner.

The UNHCR is helping individuals who have been in the Eastern Nepal camps since 1993 by resettling them to the West. Resettlement in many ways is better then living in the limbo life if a refugee camp.But it is an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff solution. Surely the UN and it’s agencies can do better than facilitate the ongoing  “ethnic tension” and consequential  global displacement  then by moving the symptom elsewhere? Is this really what we want to be doing as an international community as a long-term solution?

Here is the link to the UNHCR story.

7 thoughts on “Bhutanese refugees and UN celebrations of resettlement.

  1. Hi Neesha,

    Thanks for raising this issue, as it is one of those refugee situations that many people are unaware of. I understand your frustration, but I think your anger is misdirected at the UN.

    It’s important to remember that the members of the UN are sovereign states. The UN has no power over it’s members, and the role of UNHCR is to ‘safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees’. The UNHCR does not have the mandate to resolve tensions and conflicts in UN member states, so if a refugee’s rights and well-being cannot be guaranteed at home, the UNHCR try to find a next best option.

    I don’t agree that the international community is facilitating ethnic tension by re-settling refugees. In fact, re-settled refugees may be in a better position to advocate for change in their homeland in a host country – think about the Human Rights activist, Naing Ko Ko a Burmese refugee resettled in NZ who just won Amnesty International Aotearoa’s Human Rights Defender award, has completed a Masters in International Development, and is about to do a PHD in the UK. Many people say he is touted to be a significant future leader in Burma when democracy returns.

    I agree with your frustration, but I do think there is only so much the international community can do, aside from supporting people who are trying to affect positive change themselves. How frequently does interference by the international community (whether for morally valid reasons or not), usually result in a better outcome for people within a state?


  2. I totally agree. I just feel the current processes of addressing internal conflicts are ineffectual and surely the UNHCR are in a position to really know a situation and if they had some leverage could actually affect positive change in a region?
    As I said resettlement for individuals is great and with access to education they can raise awareness which seems to be a key aspect to finding resolutions to what is happening back in their home countries. Resettlement is also a better option then life in the camps.
    I guess my core frustration is the UN appears to have been co-opted to facilitate western nations helping nations rich in resources while situations like the Sudan, Bhutan and Burma just seem to languish with increasing repression and loss of life. It is a reductionist argument but it just feels like we can do better. And also the UNHCR is not a stand alone organisation it is a branch of the UN.
    I really appreciate your feedback on my piece. Something that engenders debate and conversation and raises awareness is a good thing in my book.
    I wish the UN and its connected agencies would be more consistent in approach.

    • Yes, but the reason that the UN appears to be co-opted is because it is a member-based organisations…and the members with the most money fund the activities they support, and don’t provide funding for work that doesn’t suit their interests. Not a good reason or excuse, but an explanation.

      What resource rich countries do you think the UN is helping? I’m interested to know, as I don’t really think much of any UN programming. Most of it is ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’, or is in fact the work of NGOs who they channel funds to. The WHO is probably one UN agency that I would consider an exception.

  3. One more point in regards to the ethnic tension, and this is a complicated situation to be sure, the Ngalongs generally speaking don’t want the ethnic Nepali in country and by resettling them isn’t the UNHCR assisting the possible ethnic cleansing of Bhutan? I know that is an extreme reading of it as those targeted absolutely deserve a better life. But isn’t that what is happening? The Kingdom of Bhutan know the UNHCR will resettle those they no longer want within their borders.

  4. I agree with your explanation.It just seems that maybe this funding based model is the fundamental flaw of the current UN structure, or if not that, the permanent members of the security council that can veto anything if it doesn’t meet their current geo-political agenda. It seems counter intuitive to global progress and cohesion that we have five countries that did quite well out of a war 60 years ago dictating global stability.
    And the resource rich argument actually comes from Romeo Dallaire who I saw talk the other night. He suggested quite plainly that one of the main reasons the UN wasn’t acting strongly in Dafur is because one the population is black and secondly the area is not resource rich. The more I have thought about it and applied it as a means to understanding UN actions in particular conflicts (with my limited knowledge) the more it rings true. There appears to be a sliding scale of assistance based on resources and colour. The race issue I am not so sure on but I am not surprised by it.

    • Yep, I completely agree that the UN needs a major overhaul if it is ever to be effective, and the security council permanent members is one of the key problems. Unfortunately, I just don’t see any of them giving that away anytime soon!

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