Nepal: Bhutanese refugee census nears completion

KHUDUNABARI , 1 May 2007 (IRIN) - A joint exercise by the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) and the government of Nepal to register all Bhutanese refugees living in the country is closer to completion, say officials.

"This census will provide a profile of the Bhutanese refugees living in this country," Davies Kamau, a UNHCR registration officer, said in Nepal's Khundunabari refugee camp in the south-eastern Jhapa district, home to an estimated 13,500 people, and the last of seven camps in the country to be surveyed.

Previous government estimates place the number of Bhutanese refugees at about 107,000.

The census began on 15 November 2006 and the government of Nepal and UNHCR aim to complete it by 11 May, at which point they will release some of its findings.

"Once we are confident that the information we have is reliable, then UNHCR and the government will come to a point where we agree as to what data to release to the public," Kamau said.

Through the individual profiles established, UNHCR would be in a much better position to assist and protect the refugees, Kamau said.

"We are collecting a lot of valid data that we didn't have before, such as skills and occupations, as well as the specific needs of each household, including protection concerns," he said.

This information would then be entered into a data bank, which would help the authorities and UNHCR as well as donors and NGOs working with the refugees, he added.

Within the census tent at Khundunabari, UNHCR officials are using a newly developed software program that enables them to record the personal details of more than 20 families at a time.

Afterwards, photos are taken of the refugees for identification cards that will be jointly issued by the government and UNHCR soon for all adults above 16 years of age.

"We actually don't know how many refugees are in Nepal today," Shrestha Surya, a Nepal government team leader for the census, said.

"This census will allow us to know how many have died, been born, how many people are disabled and what the ratio of academic qualifications are. At present, all we have in terms of information is based on the entry documents the refugees received from the authorities when they first entered the country," Surya said.

Most of the refugees interviewed by IRIN arrived in Nepal more than 16 years ago and maintain their only desire is to return to their homeland.

And while there have been negotiations between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan on this issue, there is no immediate solution for voluntary repatriation in sight, according to Kaoru Nemoto, head of UNHCR's sub-office in Damak.

"Their discussions have been a stalemate," Nemoto said.

For newly registered refugees like Prem Chhetri, a resident of Khundunabari since 1993, the desire to return to his homeland is stronger than ever.

"I would like to return to Bhutan. I want to work and build a future for myself," the father-of-two said, adding that he was also open to third-country resettlement - an option still widely being discussed by a number of countries, including the US, Australia and Canada.

In October 2006, Ellen Sauerbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugee and Migration Affairs, said Washington was willing to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees, a move welcomed by UNHCR.