South Koreans had much to be proud of this Liberation Day. They can celebrate the country’s rapid rise from the ashes of the Korean War to what is now a maturing democracy, an industrial power, and the world’s 13th-largest economy. A South Korean, Ban Ki-moon, is now the world’s top diplomat. South Korea’s pop culture has broad appeal across Asia.
While many Koreans do not realize it, South Korea also has become a beacon to many pro-democracy and human rights activists around the world. Within a generation, South Koreans shed a dictatorship for a functioning democracy, an achievement that many others hope to emulate. Yet, curiously, the South Korean government has shirked one of the vital responsibilities that comes with its new status: admitting refugees and asylum seekers.
It is understandable that some of the most desperate people, including asylum seekers and refugees, would want to find a new home in South Korea, a prosperous and open society. With a population of almost 50 million, South Korea has admitted more than 10,000 North Koreans, not as refugees but as citizens, under a resettlement program that includes basic job training, healthcare services and financial subsidies. Debates on how to label the North Koreans aside, the South Korean government is doing the right thing by offering a helping hand to North Koreans. But that hand often becomes clenched like a fist when asylum seekers and refugees from other countries reach South Korean shores.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Unhcr), Canada, the world’s 12th-largest economy, with a population of 33 million, has granted more than 151,000 people refugee status. Australia, the 17th-largest economy, with a population of 21 million, has almost 69,000 legally recognized refugees. The Republic of South Africa, the 22nd-largest economy, with a population of 47 million, hosts over 35,000 refugees. In comparison, South Korea has so far granted refugee status to just over 60 people. Another 50 or so have been given permission to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds, but without any legally recognized status as refugees or residents.
This tiny number speaks volumes about South Korea’s weak commitment to refugee protection. Yet even this small number hides a more entrenched aversion to refugees and asylum seekers. Even the few who have been granted refugee status often have been forced to put their lives on hold, not for weeks or months, but for years, while waiting for a final decision on their status. Those given permission to stay without refugee status are not allowed to work. In order to earn a living, they have to break the law. Government financial assistance is almost non-existent.
It has been 15 years since South Korea became a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the main international refugee protection instrument. During this period, around 1,400 people sought asylum in South Korea. Moreover, it has been seven years since South Korea became a member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Executive Committee, which decides important policy issues regarding refugee protection. It is time for the South Korean government to provide better refugee protection.
To start, it should increase the number of immigration officers screen asylum seekers and standardize asylum procedures so that asylum cases can be processed effectively, promptly, and humanely. The government should guarantee personal interviews with each asylum seeker, ensure confidentiality of the information provided by the applicants and provide interpreters whenever necessary. When a decision is made, the applicants should be notified of the result and the reasons that led to the decision. Asylum seekers should have the right to appeal a negative decision. Once a person is granted refugee status, he or she should be provided secure residency and related rights. While their cases are pending, asylum seekers should be allowed to work and have access to health care. Children must have access to education. For victims of torture, or others with special needs, the government should provide counseling or other appropriate services to ensure a smooth transition to a better life.
South Korea should also demonstrate solidarity with international protection efforts by offering to take refugees in desperate need of resettlement, such as Burmese in Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, and Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria.
It is long past the time South Korea can hide behind the ancient rhetoric that it is a small country surrounded by big powers, with limited resources and influence. As South Koreans celebrate their freedom and prosperity with deserved pride and self-confidence, their government should honor them by implementing a refugee and asylum policy that reflects the values and achievements that South Korea has worked so hard to attain.
Brad Adams is the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
U.S.: Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery
Human Rights Watch Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee
Wendy Patten, HRW's U.S. Advocacy Director, testifies to the U.S. Senate about Human Rights Watch's work on Human trafficking worldwide and makes suggestions as to how the U.S. government can better prosecute traffickers and protect victims of trafficking in the United States.
Statement of Wendy Patten, U.S. Advocacy Director
Testimony Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Property Rights
Mr. Chairperson and Members of the Subcommittee,
Thank you for inviting me to provide testimony on behalf of Human Rights Watch on efforts to address trafficking in persons in the United States. It is an honor to testify before you today. My colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch thank you for focusing on this important human rights problem.
For over a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented and monitored trafficking of persons around the world. We have published reports on trafficking of women and girls from Burma to Thailand, Nepal to India, Thailand to Japan, Eastern Europe to Greece, and countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our recent reports have documented trafficking of children for domestic and agricultural labor in West Africa, focusing on Togo, and trafficking of Bhutanese refugee women from refugee camps in Nepal. In 2001, we reported on the abuse of domestic workers with special employer-based visas in the United States.
Trafficking flourishes throughout the world, aided by corruption and neglect by states. Seeking better lives and opportunities, trafficking victims migrate only to find themselves trapped in debt bondage, forced labor, and slavery-like conditions. The United Nations has estimated that 700,000 people are trafficked into forced labor and forced prostitution around the world each year. Recent U.S. government estimates (600,000 to 800,000) are consistent with this figure.
In researching trafficking, Human Rights Watch has relied since December 2000 on the international standard that defines trafficking as set forth in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking Protocol). In Article 3(a), the Protocol defines trafficking in persons as:
The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of abuse of power or of position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.
The Trafficking Protocol gives governments a framework for providing human rights protections to victims of trafficking, including medical and psychological care, appropriate shelter, legal assistance, protection and safety, temporary residence, and safe repatriation.
Like the Trafficking Protocol, the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 covers all forms of trafficking. As our research has shown, trafficking occurs for a variety of pernicious purposes, ranging from bonded labor to forced prostitution. Women, men, girls, and boys are trafficked and forced to work or provide services in or on farms, factories, restaurants, homes, brothels, and bars. Despite the varied settings into which people are trafficked, the common element in all trafficking cases is the ongoing violation of the person. The goal of traffickers is to exert total control over the victim in order to extract labor or services from him or her. Traffickers around the world use a common set of tactics to trap their victims in exploitative situations: physical force, threats of physical force, deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, debt bondage, threats of deportation, and threats to family members. It is vital for the U.S. government to address trafficking in all of its horrific forms.
Trafficking in persons is in many ways a quintessential 21st century crime problem. In an era of globalization and enhanced technology, small networks of criminals can operate internationally, preying on those who would migrate in search of work or a better life and subjecting them to horrible abuse. As governments map out anti-trafficking strategies, they must see this problem not only in law enforcement terms, but in human rights terms. They need to understand that trafficking in persons is a serious human rights issue, and that governments have an obligation to protect victims and to provide redress. This obligation is firmly rooted in human rights principles.
I will briefly speak to you today about how the U.S. government can better prosecute traffickers and protect victims of trafficking here in the United States. I will make five main points, drawn from our research on and monitoring of trafficking in persons in numerous countries around the world.
First, the United States should ratify the Trafficking in Persons Protocol. Proposed by the United States and Argentina in January 1999, this is the first international protocol to require governments to criminalize trafficking in persons and to provide a framework for enhanced protection of, and assistance to, victims. The text of the Trafficking Protocol was adopted and opened for signature in the fall of 2000, establishing a global standard for government action, which is particularly important given the transnational nature of many trafficking networks. The Protocol offers an historic opportunity for countries of origin, transit, and destination to work together to investigate and prosecute traffickers, and to afford essential protections and assistance to trafficking victims.
The Trafficking Protocol entered into force in December, 2003 and now has 62 states party and 117 signatories. The U.S government was among the first countries to sign the Trafficking Protocol in December 2000. Earlier this year, President Bush transmitted the Protocol, together with the main Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, to the Senate seeking its advice and consent to ratification. On June 17, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on a number of law enforcement treaties, including the Trafficking Protocol. We urge the Senate to promptly provide its advice and consent to ratification of the Trafficking Protocol, and enable the United States to join the large number of countries who have already pledged to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and undertake prevention efforts.
Second, the U.S. government should enhance its capacity to provide meaningful witness protection and victim protection for victims of trafficking in the United States. All too often, witness protection is thought of in its most traditional, most well-known form: protecting a witness who testifies on behalf of the government in a criminal trial. But existing witness protection programs were typically designed for witnesses who were themselves criminals, not for victims, and certainly not for vulnerable victims who may have endured serious trauma.
Instead, we should think of witness protection as a subset of the broader category of victim protection -- and which is not limited to the safety of witnesses in a criminal proceeding. To be sure, prosecution is a core obligation of states in protecting the rights of trafficking victims and in curbing trafficking. Traffickers must be held accountable for the crimes, victims need access to justice, and trafficking networks need to be disrupted and future trafficking prevented. Despite the critical importance of prosecution in trafficking cases, it would be a mistake to talk about protection for victims and witnesses only in the context of testimony at trial. Victims need protection in order to break free from the control of their traffickers and to avoid falling back into the hands of the traffickers. Victims need safety, whether they are being treated in a hospital, staying at a local shelter, or living in a private home. Whether they stay in the country to which they were trafficked or return to their home countries, they need to be able to do so safely. They also need a range of support and assistance in order to rebuild their lives without fear of reprisal from those who trafficked them.
Elaine Pearson’s work on victim protection at Anti-Slavery International is instructive. In her report, she speaks of victim protection in terms of the right to confidentiality, the right to security of person, and the right to access to justice. This formulation embraces those elements of victim support that governments rarely provide – counseling, medical and psychological services (including specialized services and support for sexual assault), legal assistance, employment authorization and training, and safe, secure shelter.
In addition to these essential protections, the U.S. government should also provide the following protections for trafficking victims in the United States:
• Ensure that all trafficked persons are allowed to remain in the United States throughout the duration of any criminal or civil proceedings against their abusers.
• Ensure full implementation of measures that enable victims who fear retaliation upon return to their home country to apply for permanent resettlement on that basis. In particular, ensure that victims who fear retaliation at home can seek to remain in the United States, even if they are unable to comply with law enforcement requests for assistance.
• Prevent the further victimization of trafficked persons by guaranteeing their immunity from prosecution for immigration violations or other crimes related to their having been trafficked.
• For children under the age of 18: Provide for their protection and development, including appropriate urgent care, ongoing physical or mental health care, shelters separate from adults for recovery and reintegration, and education.
These kinds of protections – against reprisals, violence, and threats against victims and their families, especially children – are essential in protecting the rights of trafficking victims. Such protection is also a critical component of an effective anti-trafficking strategy. The inclusion of such provisions in the Trafficking Protocol and in the TVPA underscores a crucial reality: governments cannot effectively fight trafficking unless they develop and implement comprehensive protection policies and programs.
Third, the U.S. government should expand and intensify its efforts to train federal law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim-witness personnel, and to conduct outreach to state and local police, prosecutors, and service providers. Such training and outreach is critical in identifying trafficking victims and cases, and in ensuring that community-based networks are established to provide support for victims when a case occurs. Proactive, community-wide work is needed before federal prosecutors or local police encounter a large trafficking case with multiple victims who have urgent needs for shelter and services.
This kind of effort echoes a key recommendation of the Department of Justice’s 2004 Assessment of U.S. Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons. In its report, the Justice Department recommends that the U.S. government develop a standard trafficking in persons training program that can be implemented at the academy level for all state and local police, and expand training to prosecutors and judges to include the mental health consequences to victims. The report further recommends enhanced state and local involvement in identifying victims of trafficking, and further efforts to expand local government and community knowledge of the crime of trafficking and resources available to help victims. These are necessary steps that we urge the U.S. government to undertake in a comprehensive and sustained way.
Fourth, the Senate should not enact the Homeland Security Enhancement Act (HSEA), which would have serious consequences for trafficking victims and for trafficking investigations and prosecutions. If enacted, this bill and its House counterpart, the CLEAR Act, would require state and local officials to enforce federal civil immigration laws and to detain and remove non-citizens. These bills would thus further endanger some of the most vulnerable members of immigrant communities in the United States: battered, trafficked, or sexually abused women and children. Many immigrants, even if they are in the United States legally, will refrain from contacting police about abuses they have suffered for fear that they – or undocumented relatives who may live with them – will be arrested on immigration charges. Indeed, traffickers often use the threat of deportation and reprisals back home to prevent their victims from reporting the crimes they have suffered. The CLEAR Act and HSEA will simply give those criminals new confidence in their ability to act with impunity.
Even where limited relief for these victims may be available through new special visa categories, the CLEAR Act and HSEA risk harming these victims by making their recourse to justice and protection even more unlikely. Local law enforcement officers should protect victims of trafficking. But if local officials are also required to enforce federal immigration laws, traffickers will have greater power to trap their victims in violent or exploitative situations. Not only will trafficking victims suffer serious abuse, but law enforcement will encounter much greater difficulty in identifying and prosecuting traffickers and other violent criminals.
Finally, the United States should, above all else, return control to the victims of trafficking. The greatest challenge for governments is not identifying the specific services that victims of trafficking need to survive and begin rebuilding their lives. That is indeed a challenge, as discussed above. The greatest challenge for governments is seeing and respecting, at the most basic level, the humanity of all survivors of trafficking and, therefore, working with survivors in a way that demonstrates their commitment to protecting the equality and dignity of all human beings. Because violation of human dignity lies at the core of human trafficking, the affirmation of the dignity of trafficking victims must be at the center of any effort to address and solve it.
Trafficking in persons is a profound human rights abuse, and women are particularly vulnerable to this practice due to the persistent inequalities they face in status and opportunity. Governments around the world must take this problem seriously. With the passage of domestic legislation, the elaboration of regional action plans, and the entry into force of an international trafficking protocol, important advances have been made in developing a framework for action. Governments now need to take concrete steps to prevent trafficking, punish traffickers, and provide human rights protections for victims. It is imperative that the United States demonstrate its leadership on this critical human rights issue by doing all it can to provide protection and redress for trafficking victims here in the United States.
MARCH 29, 2007 8:00PM EDT Dear SAARC Government Leaders:
As the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meet in New Delhi on April 3 and 4, 2007, the discussions will inevitably focus upon economics and regional security. At SAARC meetings, human rights problems in each member country have usually been treated as an internal matter. However, it takes only a quick survey of the region to see that there are many human rights issues that would benefit from mutual engagement and agreement.
Apart from other serious human rights problems, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka are also dealing with situations related to armed conflicts and insurgencies. Nepal, with its numerous human rights problems, has only just emerged from a violent conflict that claimed over 13,000 lives, and violence continues in the south. Bangladesh has witnessed increased militancy and the caretaker government has detained tens of thousands, often ignoring basic due process, in its efforts to combat corruption and crime. Bhutan continues to discriminate against citizens of Nepali origin. In the Maldives, there are serious curbs on political freedom.
In Sri Lanka, the human rights situation has deteriorated drastically since major hostilities between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resumed in early 2006. The LTTE has been responsible for numerous political killings and indiscriminate bomb attacks, and continues to use child soldiers and forcibly recruit adults for its forces. It has prevented civilians from fleeing areas of combat in the north and east. Government security forces have increasingly violated the laws of war by engaging in indiscriminate attacks in which civilians were killed and have also been implicated in extrajudicial executions. “Disappearances” attributable to state security forces or allied armed groups have risen sharply; hundreds of alleged “disappearances” have been reported on the Jaffna peninsula over the past 15 months. More than 15,000 refugees have fled to neighboring India and over 200,000 were internally displaced by the fighting in the north and east. The government has forced displaced civilians to return to their homes in the east despite their concerns about security and access to humanitarian aid. The Karuna group, with the open support of state forces, continues to abduct and forcibly recruit boys and young men for its forces and political work. Civil society has increasingly come under attack and national institutions involved in human rights protections have been undermined.
In India, impunity laws that protect members of the security forces from prosecution continue to fuel human rights abuses in the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeast. Security forces have been responsible for widespread abuses including torture and arbitrary detentions. Recently, in Jammu and Kashmir, police investigations revealed that some policemen, usually in joint operations with the army, were killing civilians in faked encounters, and then claiming that they were Pakistani militants. New Delhi has failed to act on the recommendations of a government-appointed committee that said the Armed Forces Special Powers Act should be repealed. Despite encouraging disaffected groups to choose dialogue and peaceful protest in the northeast or in areas where Maoist groups have begun an armed campaign, the Indian government has failed to acknowledge or address such methods; for instance, it has failed to investigate the reasonable demands of Irom Sharmila, who has been on a seven-year hunger strike to demand an end to human rights abuses by troops in Manipur. The government’s failure to implement its laws that protect vulnerable communities received international attention in Maharashtra state recently, where four members of a Dalit family were brutally murdered, but no arrests were made until there were violent protests. Hindu extremist groups continue to threaten religious minorities, tribal groups and Dalits. Indian police have used excessive force against villagers and farmers opposing development projects. Laws to protect women and children have not been effectively implemented. India has failed to adequately acknowledge and protect refugees from Burma and Bhutan, and has provided military assistance to the Burmese army, which has frequently attacked civilians and committed other atrocities in its war against ethnic insurgents.
In Pakistan there have widespread reports of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. Alleged terrorism suspects are often detained without charge or tried without proper judicial process. Human Rights Watch has documented scores of arbitrary detentions, instances of torture, and “disappearances” by the security forces in Pakistan’s major cities. The government has failed to provide the civilian population in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas adequate protection from Taliban attacks after agreements ending military operations there effectively ceded power to local tribal leaders closely allied with the Taliban. Civilians have also died in counter-terrorism operations due to the security forces’ use of excessive force. While the authorities routinely misuse counter-terrorism laws to perpetuate vendettas and as an instrument of political coercion, sectarian militants continue to target the Shia Muslim minority in Pakistan and are responsible for attacks upon civilians in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Women and girls in Pakistan confront astounding levels of violence, with hundreds of women and girls murdered each year in the name of family “honor.” Journalists and human rights defenders face frequent threats and attacks from state agents and extremists. Pakistan’s judiciary remains subservient to the military. When it does attempt to act independently, the government has intervened, as it has done recently with the arbitrary removal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In Afghanistan, more than 1,000 civilians were killed as a result of violence related to the insurgency in 2006; 15,000 families were displaced and over 200,000 children were unable to attend school. The violence prevented reconstruction and access to clean water, education, and health care. The Taliban and other anti-government forces continue to attack aid workers, government officials, teachers, students, and schools. Regional warlords implicated in war crimes, some allied with the government, continue to perpetrate serious human rights abuses throughout Afghanistan. Afghan women and girls continue to suffer from entrenched discrimination throughout the country. They have among the highest rates of illiteracy, maternal mortality, and forced marriage in the world. There are few remedies available for gender-based violence and many women and girls confront severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. Afghanistan is again on the precipice of becoming a haven for human rights abusers, criminals, and militant extremists, many of whom in the past have severely abused Afghans, particularly women and girls.
In Bangladesh security forces have long been implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings. These have continued since a state of emergency was declared on January 11, 2007. The killings have been attributed to members of the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force. Killings in custody have been a persistent problem in Bangladesh. To date, no military personnel are known to have been held criminally responsible for any of the deaths. There have been widespread abuses reported against Hindus and Ahmadiyya Muslims. Women continue to suffer domestic violence including acid attacks, largely with no response from the state. Most recently, under the state of emergency, the military has arrested thousands of people on allegations of corruption and other crimes, but many have been denied their due process rights. Some have been tortured. There have also been attempts by the authorities to control the media, with editors being privately summoned to impose self censorship.
Bhutan has continued its discriminatory practices to enforce a distinct national identity, in line with Bhutan’s “one nation, one people” policy. These policies are perceived as a direct attack on the cultural identity of the ethnic Nepalese living in southern Bhutan. The government forcibly evicted tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese in 1990 and 105,000 still remain in seven refugee camps in Nepal. Nearly 50,000 Bhutanese refugees live outside the camps in India and Nepal. Bhutanese Nepali speakers who managed to avoid expulsion and still live in Bhutan remain very insecure. Some have been denied citizenship cards following the latest census in 2005 and so they are now effectively stateless in their own country.
In the Maldives, citizens continue to face restrictions on political freedom. Security forces have been implicated in torture and arbitrary detention, among other abuses. There are severe limitations upon the rights to freedom of the press, assembly, association, and religion. Unequal treatment of women continues, as do restrictions on workers' rights.
In Nepal, the November 21, 2006 agreement between Nepal’s coalition government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) ended ten years of fighting that killed an estimated 13,000 people. The deal included compliance with an armed management pact, under which each side would put away most of its weapons and restrict most troops to a few barracks, under the supervision of monitors from the United Nations. Both parties agreed to end all forms of feudalism and promote greater inclusion of marginalized groups. However, ethnic, linguistic and regional tensions continue, with increasing violence in the south where ethnic minorities are demanding equal representation in determining Nepal’s future. Women are yet to be an equal part of the peace process. Impunity remains a problem, with little urgency in investigating and prosecuting those responsible for atrocities during the conflict. The army was responsible for enforced disappearances, torture and mistreatment of detainees, while the Maoists recruited children into armed conflict and punished civilians that they deemed as insufficiently committed to their cause with executions, mock executions, cutting body parts, and severe beatings. Meanwhile, trafficking of Nepali women and children into India as domestic labor or sex workers continues, particularly because thousands remain internally displaced due to the conflict.
Human rights abuses such as those listed above are often the cause and fuel of conflict. A failure by the state to provide and protect economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights, including ensuring the rights of marginalized groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, can lead to discontent that eventually turns violent.
Militants and armed groups, such as Kashmiri, Maoist and northeastern militants in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and Islamist groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh, often commit human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate bomb attacks, extortion, killings and abductions. Security forces deployed by the state for counter insurgency operations, unless properly checked, have in turn become responsible for abuses including torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.
Regional security and economic progress cannot be achieved unless every citizen is provided with a secure environment to enjoy their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. This is especially true for groups historically discriminated against, like women and children. Half of the world’s poor live in this region. Policies and laws to help them will be useless unless effectively implemented.
SAARC represents a sixth of the world’s population and plays a significant role in global affairs. It is crucial that SAARC adopt measures that provide good governance standards for the region, including respect for fundamental human rights. If it does so, it could become a beacon for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, to date SAARC has not taken human rights seriously. Instead it has been largely a talk shop and a photo opportunity for its members’ leaders.
Human Rights Watch encourages SAARC members to:
Ensure the protection of vulnerable communities including religious and ethnic minorities, Dalits and tribal groups. Governments should repeal all laws that lead to discrimination against minorities such as citizens of Nepali origin in Bhutan, Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Ahmaddiyas and Hindus of Bangladesh. Instead, laws designed to protect these groups should be properly implemented, such as in the case of Muslims, Christians, tribal groups and Dalits in India.
End specific legal, cultural, or religious practices by which women are systematically discriminated against, excluded from political participation and public life, segregated in their daily lives, raped in armed conflict, beaten in their homes, denied equal divorce or inheritance rights, killed for having sex, forced to marry, assaulted for not conforming to gender norms, and sold into forced labor. Arguments that sustain and excuse these human rights abuses - those of cultural norms, "appropriate" rights for women, or western imperialism - barely disguise their true meaning: that women's lives matter less than men's.
Implement laws to end human rights abuses against children including the use of children as soldiers; the worst forms of child labor; torture of children by police; police violence against street children; conditions in correctional institutions and orphanages; corporal punishment in schools; mistreatment of refugee and migrant children; trafficking of children for labor and prostitution; discrimination in education because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or HIV/AIDS; and physical and sexual violence against girls and boys.
Build strong international human rights norms and institutions to create a successful, rights-respecting counter-terrorism policy. Protection of human rights should be treated as an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, not as an obstacle.
End state participation in enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and extrajudicial executions, which are often masked as armed encounters.
Prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights abuses, including persons implicated as a matter of command responsibility when superiors knew or should have known of ongoing crimes but failed to take action. These include high-ranking and powerful individuals, including those holding government positions.
Stop supplying weapons to governments likely to use them to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. India supplies weapons to Burma, and Pakistan has provided weapons to Sri Lanka. SAARC member states , have also provided weapons to abusive opposition groups.
Tie military aid to fellow SAARC members and other countries to strict human rights compliance.
Prohibit the use, production, and trade of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
Adopt multilateral labor agreements to protect workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India who migrate to the Middle East and Asia. These workers, especially those in construction and domestic service, regularly suffer unpaid wages, confiscation of their passports, hazardous working conditions, and sometimes physical abuse. High recruitment fees and deception during recruitment have led many workers to be trapped in situations amounting to debt bondage and human trafficking. Labor-sending governments should regulate and monitor labor recruitment agencies by placing caps on recruitment fees, providing clear information in enforceable employment contracts, and strengthening support services in embassies abroad for abused workers.
Provide proper protection and access to humanitarian assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons. No one should be returned to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. The groups at risk today in the SAARC region include Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Rohingyas in Bangladesh, Burmese and Sri Lankan refugees in India, and Tibetan and Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. The internally displaced include tens of thousands who fled from armed conflicts in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as those displaced due to natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake.
We look forward to discussing these issues with each of you in both a bilateral and multilateral context.
(New York) Bhutanese refugee women in Nepal encounter gender-based violence and systematic discrimination in access to aid, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and governments meeting in Geneva next week must take decisive action to eliminate such abuses in refugee settings worldwide.
The 77-page Human Rights Watch report, “Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal,” examines the uneven response of UNHCR and the government of Nepal to rape, domestic violence, sexual and physical assault, and trafficking of girls and women from refugee camps. These problems persist despite reforms UNHCR introduced after internal investigations uncovered “sexual exploitation” of refugee women and girls by aid workers in Nepal and West Africa in 2002.
Human Rights Watch urged UNHCR and governments participating in UNHCR’s Executive Committee (“ExCom”) meetings from September 29 to October 3 to commit themselves to protecting refugee women.
“Refugee women in Nepal are not getting their fair share of aid,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “UNHCR cannot wait any longer to fix policies that put women’s lives at risk. The government of Nepal also has to respond to this urgent problem.”
Human Rights Watch called on governments who contribute a substantial portion of UNHCR’s budget to make sure such changes are adopted. UNHCR and governments should ensure that refugee women receive their own registration documents, and that refugee women experiencing domestic violence can find safety.
Nepal’s system of refugee registration discriminates against women by distributing rations through male heads of household. This policy denies women equal and independent access to food, shelter and supplies, and imposes particular hardship on women trying to escape abusive marriages. Either these women must stay in violent relationships, leave their relationships (and thus relinquish their full share of aid packages), or marry another man, in which case they lose legal custody of their children.
UNHCR has significantly improved reporting systems, staffing levels, legal aid and codes of conduct for aid workers in Nepal, but distressing gaps remain, Human Rights Watch said. Refugee camp management and Nepalese authorities often address domestic violence by promoting “family reconciliation,” and do not adequately address women’s own wishes, safety and access to services. UNHCR has documented 24 suicides in the camps since 2001, four times the suicide rate in the local population. Moreover, 35 refugee women and girls are missing from the camps and may be trafficking victims.
The Human Rights Watch report shows how Nepal’s laws constrain the prosecution of gender-based violence. Specific domestic violence legislation does not exist in Nepal. A 35-day statute of limitations and burdensome medical reporting procedures prevent rape victims from filing complaints with the police and pressing criminal charges. The same obstacles have prevented any prosecution of aid workers and Nepalese government employees accused of “sexual exploitation” in October 2002.
“Women’s legal status in Nepal and their opportunities for redress against violence are abysmal,” said Jefferson. “UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies should advocate for legislative changes in Nepal.”
After reports of “sexual exploitation” by refugee aid workers in 2002, UNHCR removed three international staffers in Nepal on grounds of gross negligence. UNHCR should promote transparency and set a standard of accountability for its staff and partners by providing information on the disciplinary measures it has taken.
UNHCR and donors should also increase pressure on Nepal and Bhutan to resolve their longstanding refugee situation in a manner that is timely and meets international standards. Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been living in seven camps in southeastern Nepal ever since they were arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship and forced to flee Bhutan in the early 1990s. Bhutan and Nepal meet this week in New York to discuss a recent refugee screening that deemed only 2.5% of those considered eligible for repatriation to Bhutan with full citizenship, leaving the rest to an uncertain and potentially stateless future. The process failed to meet international standards, and excluded women from meaningful participation.
Cases of Bhutanese refugee women featured in the report: (Pseudonyms are used to protect privacy)
Geeta M. told Human Rights Watch that her husband frequently beat her and threatened to deny her food and other rations. “Sometimes I was beaten so badly I bled. My husband took a second wife. I didn’t agree. He said, ‘If you don’t allow me to take a second wife, then the ration card is in my name, and I’ll take everything.’ I have asked my husband for the health card and ration card and they don’t give it to me. I have not gotten approval to get a separate ration card.”
One refugee woman, Durga S., told Human Rights Watch, “My husband is suspicious whenever I talk to anybody else. Since he brought a second wife, I am beaten frequently. On my thighs, there were blue marks. He had beaten me with a belt and with his hands. He has already hit me, why should I show everyone? People will talk badly about us. My husband threatens to kill me and throw me away. He beats me if he thinks I’m reporting it to someone.”
The study of history provides rich lessons about the damaging effects of oppression and injustice, particularly egregious human-rights violations. One of the most important is that if legitimate claimants are brutally repressed into silence and desperation, their grievances can be exploited by those who instigate further violence. The result of this mistaken choice of war over peace is that almost everyone involved is drawn into a circle of fear and degradation in a way that leaves them even worse off.
Among the various battles raging around the globe - with cluster-bombs and suicide-bombs, between militants and soldiers, over religion or land - one peaceful struggle is rapidly disappearing from our newspapers, and another, possibly more violent, threatening to make news. Each is nourished by human-rights abuses and hidden by the "happy news" of the state concerned. The tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan and the enormous state of China share the dubious distinction of representing dominant ethnic and linguistic majorities that would prefer to erase minority cultures.
In Tibet, China is building roads, rails and other infrastructure in an attempt to push people into choosing prosperity over religious and cultural identity. Tens of thousands who fled into exile can still cling to their language, culture and religion, but the millions who remain, after years of arrests and killings, have largely been forced into compromise. Many Tibetans believe they are ignored by the international community because their movement was peaceful.
Bhutan, even as it boasted of its high "gross national happiness", has violated international laws protecting political freedom and those shielding against discrimination based on religion or ethnicity, attempting to create a homogenous culture. When minority ethnic Nepalis complained, Bhutan responded by forcing into exile more than 100,000 of its citizens with impunity. Those that remained were silenced and terrified into submission. But now, Bhutan is witnessing the beginnings of a violent Maoist rebellion, one which has already led to reports of arrest and torture of suspected supporters.
Tibet's hidden fractures
If China were to write the history of Tibet, it would describe a "splittist" monk who tried to dismember the nation and harm a government determined to provide its people with care and opportunity. A few journalists, allowed recently to travel to the region by Chinese authorities, reported a 13% annual growth rate, widespread construction, tourism and jobs. They were not encouraged to look at the continued repression of political activists, the arbitrary detention and torture, the fact that even possessing a picture of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is regarded as a crime. New housing projects are on display, with claims that government subsidies are encouraging nomadic tribes to gain access to education and health.
By contrast, little has been said about how the Chinese government is forcibly relocating those herders into the housing projects, demanding an end to their traditional livelihoods. Human Rights Watch, in a report published in June 2007 - No One Has the Liberty to Refuse: Tibetan Herders Forcibly Relocated in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Region - found that approximately 700,000 people have been resettled in western China. The economic and social rights of Tibetan herders have been violated as they are forced to slaughter their livestock and move into newly built housing colonies without consultation or compensation.
Stories such as those recorded in the report seldom surface. One herder said: "The government says that if we sell our animals and start businesses like shops and restaurants we would have a happy life and not have to work so hard. In our village at present, about 100 households still have cattle, and 100 have none left. Of those, about fifty opened shops and restaurants, but they don't know how to do good business or how to prepare food very well, so naturally they became poor. The other fifty have no shops, no restaurants, and no cattle."
Yet Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, have remained staunchly peaceful. The Dalai Lama insists that eventually, truth and right will persevere: what after all, is a few decades in the life of a nation? This is easy enough to say for a man who is believed to be in his fourteenth incarnation; but in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama presides over the Tibetan government in exile, restless young men alternate between figuring out a ticket to the west and dreaming of a homeland they insist will be lost unless they fight for it - with bombs and guns. They respect their holy leader and cannot disobey him, but no one pays attention to peaceful protests, they insist.
Bhutan's inner strains
In Bhutan, some young people have probably reached the same unfortunate conclusion. In the early 1990s tens of thousands of Bhutanese citizens were expelled from their home. They were ethnic Nepalis, Hindus unlike the Buddhist Drukpas and culturally distinct; the Bhutanese government believed them to be intruders, and potential troublemakers. The community had grown in numbers and influence, and the Drukpa elite believed that its own privileged position and cultural identity was at risk. Citizenship laws were tightened and in 1989, the king ordered all citizens to observe the traditional Drukpa values, dress and etiquette, even removing the Nepali language from the school curriculum.
This led to growing turbulence, culminating in mass protest demonstrations in late 1990. Instead of addressing the reasons for discontent, the government arrested and exiled a large number of ethnic Nepalis. For almost two decades, the refugees have remained in camps in Nepal. Their demand for repatriation was peaceful, but despite endless rounds of talks with Kathmandu, Bhutan has shown little inclination to let them come home.
Meanwhile, ethnic Nepalis who were allowed to remain in Bhutan face constant discrimination, unable to get government jobs, buy or sell land, find admission in colleges or open a business unless they are cleared by government, a certificate nearly impossible to secure. They have to wear the national dress and speak the Dzongkha language. In a report published in May 2007 on this long-term refugee crisis - Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India - Human Rights Watch quoted a man who said, "They don't ask me to leave, but they make me so miserable, I will be forced to leave. I have no identification, so I cannot do anything, go anywhere, get any job."
The state will no doubt try to write this ugly chapter out of the history of Bhutan. But that won't make the situation any less volatile. In the refugee camps, an offer of resettlement by the United States and other countries has sparked unrest because to some it means an end to their quest for justice and the eventual goal of return to Bhutan. Refugees who speak in favour of resettlement are being threatened and intimidated; in late May 2007, they were attacked by a mob, one of their leaders beaten, and huts burnt. In the ensuing violence, Nepali police forces shot and killed two of the rioters.
Bhutan's Maoist leader Vikalpa, complaining about the "denationalisation" of Bhutanese citizens, told a journalist that there was no option other than to launch a "people's war". "Where there is suppression, there is revolt. Where there is revolt, it explodes the empire of suppression into pieces", he said. Meanwhile, there are reports that a number of people allegedly involved with the Maoists have been arrested and tortured by the Bhutanese government.
China and Bhutan still have a chance to avoid the brutal confrontation their policies of ethnic suppression nurture. But to do so, they must stop propounding the cheerful narrative that writes their troublesome minorities out of the picture of national identity, and instead grant them the respect and rights to which they are entitled.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Shri Chakra Prasad Bastola Minister of Foreign Affairs Nepal
Lyonpo Jigme Thinley Minister of Foreign Affairs Bhutan
Our organizations would like to take this opportunity to express our sincere appreciation to the governments of Nepal and Bhutan for your willingness to move forward in the search for a durable solution to the long-standing Bhutanese refugee crisis. Many of the over 90,000 refugees are entering their tenth year of life in exile in Nepal, and the agreement by both the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to initiate a joint verification with a view to repatriation to Bhutan has brought the refugees a renewed sense of hope and optimism.
While we recognize the significant progress that has thus far been made, we nevertheless share some critical concerns about the process and procedures for the joint verification. These include the absence of an independent third party to monitor and oversee the verification and repatriation process; the lack of clarity regarding the documentation required for the verification; the absence of any independent appeal process; and provisions for refugees to be accompanied to their verification interview if necessary.
We understand that the Terms of Reference agreed to by both parties make no reference to an independent monitoring or referral body, and that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not been given an active role in monitoring and facilitating the verification and repatriation process, as is the norm in most refugee situations worldwide.
We strongly urge the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to rethink their decision not to formally involve UNHCR and to request the agency to take a more formal role in monitoring and facilitating the verification, repatriation and reintegration process, possibly as part of a tripartite commission including both governments. This not only will give the process more credibility but it will ensure that the verification and repatriation conform to international standards. There are other reasons for involving UNHCR:
· The joint verification team could greatly benefit from UNHCR's expertise in screening for and implementing voluntary repatriation programs worldwide. · UNHCR could serve as a referral point in the event of any disagreement or difficulty that arises during the verification · UNHCR could play a critical role in the dissemination of information about the verification procedures and in general public awareness raising in the refugee camps. · UNHCR has developed useful guidelines and standards for voluntary repatriation that both governments could follow, such as those contained in the 1996 UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation as well as various Conclusions of UNHCR's Executive Committee (ExCom) in 1974, 1980, and 1985 respectively.
We would be grateful for clarification on several other aspects of the joint verification process. It is unclear what documentation the refugees are required to produce as proof of prior residence in and/ or citizenship of Bhutan. We urge both governments to clarify and make public the list of accepted documentation for verification to avoid confusion and uncertainty amongst the refugees.
We also hope that you will ensure that there is an opportunity for refugees to be accompanied to their verification interview by a family member or representative from a non-governmental organization working in the camps. This is particularly the case for vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied minors, single women, the elderly, and the physically and mentally disabled. Finally, we understand that the current Terms of Reference do not include any provisions for an independent appeal process for refugees who may wish to challenge the final decision of the verification. We strongly urge both governments to consider establishing an independent appeal mechanism to deal with contested decisions. This may be a role that UNHCR, or another international organization or body, could usefully play.
Once again our organizations would like to express our appreciation to both of your governments for your willingness to move forward in finding a durable solution for the Bhutanese refugees. We hope that you will consider our recommendations and concerns seriously with a view to ensuring that the verification is carried out in a transparent and fair manner and no refugee is denied their legitimate right to return to Bhutan.
As international NGOs we will be monitoring the verification process closely. We look forward to hearing your responses to our concerns, and would like to reiterate our continuing support for your efforts to seek a solution to this long-standing refugee crisis.
Human Rights Watch Lutheran World Federation Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children Refugees International Bhutanese Refugee Support Group
Ganga Baral is among the first of thousands of Bhutanese refugees who will be arriving in the United States during the next several years. She and her family arrived this Spring in Phoenix from a refugee camp in the farthest eastern reaches of Nepal, a landlocked country known to Americans, if at all, as the location for Mount Everest. Ganga, a 32-year-old mother, has lived most of her life in that camp, a place called Beldangi II. Her child has never known life outside the camp.
I met Ganga in Beldangi II when I was investigating camp conditions for Human Rights Watch last year. Ganga and her friend Pingala ran a center for children, a thatched hut called the Friendship Library, in which they provided toys, books, and activities to stimulate their minds and give an outlet for their curiosity and creativity in what otherwise could be a stagnant and hopeless existence.
I remember the Friendship Center with particular fondness because Ganga and Pingala organized a surprise birthday party there for my Human Rights Watch colleague, a young Dutch woman named Katinka. The children decorated the library and each made colorful cards for her. We shared in the children’s joy in an occasion that Ganga and Pingala made possible.
Joy is in short supply in the refugee camps of Nepal. Its inhabitants are ethnic Nepalis from neighboring Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist country that just this March made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. But the refugees — and tens of thousands of the ethnic Nepalis still living in Bhutan — have been excluded from the democratic experiment. In the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government stripped tens of thousands of mostly ethnic Nepali Hindus of their citizenship and expelled them from the country. Ganga was 13 years old when she became a stateless refugee.
Now numbering about 108,000, the Bhutanese refugees have been stuck in these camps for more than 16 years. They are prohibited from working, even inside the camps. As the years have dragged on, services and aid have dwindled. A thick cloud of smoke envelops the camps from the cheap coal used for cooking and heat. Many suffer from respiratory and skin problems; women, in particular, are plagued by depression and far too many have been the victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Ganga told me of her life in the camp. “For me, life as a refugee can be miserable. It is very difficult to return to the psychological peace of my childhood in Bhutan and escape from the cycle of misfortune. Once you have fallen into being a stateless person you can see no way out. As a refugee, we come across so many limitations and restrictions that after a while it kills our interest and makes us lose hope, saying let it be.”
But Ganga never lost hope. She and Pingala started an organization for women, Voice for Change, to give women the opportunity to meet together, to express themselves and to defend themselves against violence. But, as another woman told us, “The problem is due to so many people being packed so tightly together. As long as we are in these camps, in such cramped conditions, such problems will exist. No amount of social awareness training will be able to deal with this. To remove this problem, there has to be a permanent solution for the refugees.”
The prospect of a solution, at least for some, came when the U.S. government offered to resettle 60,000 of the refugees, perhaps even more.
The refugees were deeply divided in their response to the U.S. offer. Some saw it as a golden and cherished opportunity for their children to escape the dead-end life of a refugee. Others, however, saw it as undermining the goal of return to Bhutan and restoration of their rights in the homeland from which they had been expelled.
Wild rumors and conspiracy theories circulated about why the United States was stepping in to help. Ganga and Pingala were outspoken in their support for the right of refugees to choose resettlement. In a heavily male-dominated society, they spoke not just for themselves but for many women who wanted a better life for their children. Young men were the most militant opponents of resettlement.
Last May, a mob of teenagers sacked the Friendship Library, destroying the toys, burning the books. They attacked and destroyed Ganga’s hut, rendering Ganga and her family homeless and forcing them to flee the camp. Later, another youth mob attacked and destroyed Pingala’s hut. She wrote to me saying, “Had I been there in the hut, they would have killed me.”
Unable to return to the camp, Ganga has been living for more than a year in fear and without humanitarian assistance, since the UN refugee agency is only allowed to provide aid to refugees in the camps. During this time no refugees actually departed for the United States as political and bureaucratic obstacles impeded progress as tensions among the refugees continued to grow.
Ganga’s trauma is behind her, and she is just now beginning to learn about her new country. With welcoming help from the people of Phoenix, the woman I met in a refugee camp in far-off Nepal who told me of her lost hopes can now look forward to a bright future.
We appreciate the concerns that your Government has expressed at the deeply troubling situation of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
As the High Commissioner noted in his speech at the opening session of UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting held in Geneva last week, there is a critical need for urgent measures to resolve this situation after twelve years of stalemate. The situation has become even more disturbing with the deteriorating security situation in the country and the withdrawal of police presence from the camps, which has left the refugees without adequate security.
We understand UNHCR's frustration at its exclusion from the verification process and its inability to ensure repatriation for the Bhutanese refugees. However, we do not see the High Commissioner's proposal to gradually withdraw assistance from the camps, to promote local integration in Nepal, and to support third country resettlement, as leading to an outcome that reinforces the right of the refugees to return home - a right that the majority of refugees have indicated they wish to exercise. Nor does it hold the Government of Bhutan accountable for its international obligations to respect the refugees' right to return.
As you know, the undersigned NGOs have been monitoring this situation for quite some time. Some of our organizations recently undertook a joint mission to India and Nepal, where the delegates met with many refugees as well as Government officials and staff of UNHCR and NGOs. During the mission, refugees expressed their desire to be able to return to their homes and properties in Bhutan as full citizens and in conditions of safety and dignity. They told the visiting delegates that they believed only UNHCR could guarantee their security on return.
The undersigned NGOs have also provided extensive and very critical analysis of the deeply flawed verification process which the Governments of Nepal and Bhutan have conducted in Khudunabari camp without UNHCR involvement.
While we note the extraordinary sensitivity and complexity of the situation and the unhelpful attitudes of the Bhutanese and Indian governments, it is vital that fundamental international standards not be compromised. To do so would not only violate the rights of the Bhutanese refugees but also seriously undermine the international refugee system at a time when it is under unprecedented attack from many directions. A decision not to insist on the refugees' right to voluntary repatriation would condone the arbitrary deprivation of nationality on the basis of ethnicity.
We therefore urge you to coordinate your diplomatic, political and economic efforts to:
Ensure that Bhutanese refugees are able to make fully informed and voluntary choices about their futures.
Insist on the right of Bhutanese refugees to return to their country with full protection due to them under international law, including the right to return to their original homes and properties and, where this is not possible, to receive full compensation.
Insist that there should only be two categories in the verification process - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. (In the case of the verification already undertaken in Khudunabari camp, all those persons classified in categories I, II and IV should be treated as Bhutanese and be enabled to return to Bhutan as full citizens in safety and dignity.) For those classified as non-Bhutanese, a full, fair and independent appeals process should be established.
Insist that UNHCR should be involved in the verification and appeals process.
Ensure international monitoring of the repatriation process by UNHCR, which has the mandate and the expertise for this task. It is vital that only an agency with a protection mandate and relevant experience should be given the responsibility of monitoring this return.
Support UNHCR to promote local integration and third country resettlement for those refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to Bhutan.
Ensure that no child is rendered stateless or separated from his/her family as a result of the verification and return process.
Ensure that women are individually registered and protected from gender discrimination through the entire process.
Ensure that refugee representatives are consulted and involved at all stages of the process.
Encourage the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to address the human rights implications of this situation.
The situation of the Bhutanese refugees has reached an impasse. The bilateral process has so far totally failed to respect the rights of the refugees or to achieve a durable solution for them. It is time for the donor states to Nepal and Bhutan to convene an international conference, bringing all stakeholders together, including UN agencies and refugee representatives, to devise a comprehensive solution to this protracted refugee situation that meets international standards and gives due consideration to each of the durable solutions: voluntary repatriation, local integration and third country resettlement.
It is vital that all those who care about the protection of these refugees and, by extension, the integrity of the international refugee system, use their influence to address this issue with the greatest urgency.
Rachael Reilly Refugee Policy Advisor Human Rights Watch
pp. Peter N. Prove Assistant to the General Secretary The Lutheran World Federation
Eve Lester Refugee Coordinator Amnesty International
Malavika Vartak South Asia Regional Programme Habitat International Coalition - Housing and Land Rights Network
Melanie Teff Advocacy and Policy Coordinator Jesuit Refugee Service
Ralston Deffenbaugh Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Nepal/Bhutan: Donors Must Push for Resolution to Refugee Crisis
International Conference Needed; UNHCR Proposal Inadequate
(London) -- Donor countries to Bhutan and Nepal should convene an international conference to resolve the long-standing Bhutanese refugee crisis, six leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said in a joint letter.
In a joint letter to donor governments -- including Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom -- the NGOs said that the bilateral talks between Bhutan and Nepal had failed to deliver a solution. At the same time, the NGOs said that a proposal put forward by Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to promote local integration in Nepal and resettlement in third countries did not offer a solution for most of the refugees and would compromise their right to return to their homes.
The six NGOs -- including Amnesty International, Habitat International Coalition, Human Rights Watch, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group -- warned that UNHCR's decision to phase out assistance for the refugee camps in southeast Nepal would leave 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in a precarious position.
"The refugees have consistently expressed their desire to go home," said Rachael Reilly, Human Rights Watch's Refugee Policy Advisor. "UNHCR's proposal is not a solution. It does not uphold the refugees' right to return and lets Bhutan off the hook for expelling them in the first place."
The NGOs stressed that UNHCR's decision to phase out assistance for the refugee camps puts the onus on the international community to find a solution to the refugee crisis, one of the most protracted in the world. They called on donors to convene an international conference bringing all the stakeholders together - including U.N. agencies, governments, and refugee representatives - to find a comprehensive solution for all the refugees. Similar frameworks were successfully developed in the 1980s and 1990s for large refugee populations from Indochina and the Balkans.
Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees - an estimated one sixth of the population of Bhutan - have been living in camps in southeast Nepal since the early 1990s when they were arbitrarily stripped of their nationality and forcibly expelled from Bhutan in one of the largest ethnic expulsions in the world. The U.N. refugee agency, with the help of NGOs, has been providing assistance to the refugees since 1992.
But UNHCR has been systematically excluded from efforts by Bhutan and Nepal to bilaterally resolve the refugee crisis over the past ten years, and the government of Bhutan has flatly denied UNHCR access to the country, which is normally granted in most refugee situations.
In June 2003, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal announced the results of a joint screening process to identify the status of the refugees in one of the camps and determine who could return to Bhutan. According to the screening, less than three percent of the refugees would be able to return to Bhutan with full citizenship rights and tens of thousands could be rendered stateless. NGOs rejected the process as flawed and the results invalid. It has also been called into question by UNHCR and other governments.
"UNHCR and the international community are right to reject the deeply flawed screening process agreed between Bhutan and Nepal," said Peter Prove, Assistant to the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. "It is time for donor governments to take decisive action to help resolve the refugee crisis and bring to an end the refugees' forced exile."
The 15th round of joint ministerial talks between Bhutan and Nepal is due to take place in Thimpu, Bhutan from October 20 to 23.