"There is a clear preference of the Bhutanese refugees to return home and that has to be respected," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told IRIN in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, before his departure for Bhutan on Thursday.
"Despite 16 years with little success, we will continue to knock on Bhutan's door to seek a solution for those who want to go back," Guterres said.
Guterres arrived in Nepal on Tuesday, his first official visit to the refugee camps in eastern Nepal where the UNHCR and Nepalese government set up camps in 1990 to provide shelter for Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin.
Known as Lhotsampas in Bhutan, they were forcibly evicted from their homes by the Bhutanese government, which introduced a new law stripping them of citizenship and civil rights because of their Nepalese ancestry.
The refugees have been pleading for help from the UN to send them home for many years and are now quite optimistic owing to the visit by the high commissioner.
"All doors were closed until now. We are very encouraged by recent interest in resettling some of the refugees," explained Guterres, referring to the United States' offer to accept some 60,000 of the refugees. Other countries have expressed similar interest. However, he said the refugees should be allowed to return home if that was their wish.
According to the refugees, nearly 15 rounds of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to resolve the problem have come to nothing. The refugees are becoming ever more desperate, their health is worsening and their children mostly are not able to attend school, aid workers say.
Visit to Goldhap camp
During his visit to one of the biggest Bhutanese refugee camps, Goldhap camp in eastern Nepal, nearly 700km east of Kathmandu, Guterres told the refugees that everyone should have the freedom to make his or her own informed decision.
"The UNHCR's only agenda is the people - their needs and their will," he said. "We cannot play god. The option of resettlement or voluntary repatriation is for them to choose and decide. Our job is to open as many doors as possible so that they can leave the long years of exile behind them and start a new life as soon as possible."
The UNHCR has started an information campaign to raise awareness among refugees in all seven camps about resettlement procedures and their individual right to decide.