Nepal

Nepal: Refugees must be free to choose own solution, says UNHCR chief

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GOLDHAP CAMP, Nepal, May 23 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told camp residents on Wednesday that there was more than one solution to the plight of over 100,000 refugees who have been living in eastern Nepal for the last 16 years after leaving Bhutan.

The High Commissioner outlined the options during his first official visit to Nepal to focus on current efforts to alleviate the long-standing situation of some 107,000 refugees who have been living in seven camps since the early 1990s. He stressed that the refugees must be free to make their own decision.

"I know that life is not easy in the camps, and it has been 16 years of sacrifice for you," Guterres told refugees in Goldhap camp on Wednesday, the second day of his three-day visit. "All doors were closed until now. We are very encouraged by recent interest in resettling some of the refugees," he added, referring to the United States' offer to accept some 60,000 of the refugees originating from Bhutan, and other countries that have expressed similar interest.

"At the same time, I hope refugees who wish to return to Bhutan should have the possibility to do so. 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."

While some refugees in the camp clearly express support for repatriation, other voices are being muffled. "I miss Bhutan, but the government has seized my property. How much longer must we wait here? I would like to be resettled but I am afraid to say it in public because of some pressure in the camp [to choose repatriation]," a mother of four whispered.

During his visit to Goldhap, which houses some 10,000 refugees in Jhapa district, Guterres stressed that everyone must have the freedom to make his or her own informed decision. "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 UN refugee agency has started a mass information campaign to sensitize refugees in all seven camps on resettlement procedures and their individual right to decide for or against it.

While at Goldhap, Guterres visited a school and a youth centre where young refugees shared their frustration at their high unemployment rate and requested more support for the library, sports and recreational activities. He also observed food distribution at World Food Programme-established points, as well as some health and nutrition activities covered under the High Commissioner's special project to address gaps in these key areas affecting refugees' daily lives.

The camp residents showed him some honey, shawls and other handicrafts they had made in the camp, as well as a US$1 million solar cooker project implemented by non-governmental organisation, Vajra Foundation Nepal, through funding by Stichting Vluchteling under the Dutch Postal Lottery. Up to 75 percent of the camp will soon have access to this environmentally-friendly way of cooking.

In the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, Guterres met with Nepal's Prime Minister Giriji Prasad Koirala, Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan and Home Minister Singha Durbar to thank the country for its "very constructive and positive approach" to finding solutions for the refugees, including its support for resettlement before a comprehensive solution is found for all camp residents in Nepal.

On Thursday, the High Commissioner is scheduled to travel to Bhutan to discuss the refugee issue with government officials.

By Vivian Tan in Jhapa, Nepal