Shri Chakra Prasad Bastola
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Lyonpo Jigme Thinley
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Dear Minister,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Human Rights Watch
Lutheran World Federation
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children
Refugees International
Bhutanese Refugee Support Group