Fake Refugee Scam Fraud Exposes Organised Crime

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The fraudulent scheme to create bogus Bhutanese refugees has sparked outrage from parliament to the streets. Investigations have revealed the involvement of former ministers, a sitting secretary, several agents, middlemen, and their accomplices in an organised racket that fabricated fake refugees in exchange for substantial sums of money. The accused individuals behind this phony refugee scam collected significant amounts of money from victims, allegedly paying off politicians, high-ranking officials, and bureaucrats to ensure the success of their scheme. As the exposure has tarnished the nation's reputation in the eyes of foreigners, the nation will take pretty long to restore its prestige among the international community that had earlier agreed to resettle Bhutanese refugees, languishing in Nepali camps for several years. 

As arrests over the scandal are being made, many politicians, their family members, aides, and government officials have found themselves in hot water. A top-level committee formed some four years ago under the Home Ministry during KP Oli Sharma's administration was involved in this scandalous scheme. Furthermore, even after the Nepali Congress led the government, the then Home Minister, Bal Krishna Khand, and Home Secretary Tek Narayan Pandey continued this fraudulent act by tampering with the ministry's reports on refugees' third-country settlement. 

Interesting turn

The refugee scam took an interesting turn when Prime Minister Prachanda commented that the arrests and investigation were merely a "trailer," implying that more revelations are to come, which proved true as the extent of the corruption has gone deeper, with many reputed personalities expected to be linked to the case. Undoubtedly, the government has encountered pressures to weaken the investigation process. Various quarters must have exerted pressure on police to refrain from arresting influential individuals. However, due to huge public pressure and the exposure of the extent of the crime, both the government and the police administration have no option but to pursue the investigation and make new arrests as more evidence is uncovered. The public pressure has compelled them to see the investigation through to its logical conclusion.

As the scandal investigation deepens, former Home Minister Khand, Secretary Pandey, the son of a former minister, and sitting legislator, Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, have been detained. Rayamajhi, a former deputy prime minister and UML MP implicated in the scheme, who had gone into hiding has also been apprehended. Manju Khand, the wife of Bal Krishna Khand and a sitting MP from the Nepali Congress, has become unreachable amidst growing fears of her potential implication. Meanwhile, sword of Damocles is hanging over Arzu Rana, a member of parliament and the wife of former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. 

They have been accused of receiving funds from the same middlemen who are currently in police custody. Former home minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal is likely to be linked in the case after the arrest warrant of his son, who also is at large now. Two key middlemen, Keshav Dulal and Sanu Bhandari, devised a scheme involving fictitious refugees during the then PM Oli's tenure and the then Home Ministry established a high-level committee to identify unregistered refugees. Allegedly, each Nepali victim paid substantial amounts ranging from Rs. 4 to 5 million with the hope of travelling to the United States as a Bhutanese refugee. 

Unfortunately, their dreams were shattered when the Oli-led administration collapsed in 2021 and matters did not proceed when Khand was the Home Minister. As a result, many victims filed complaints with the police against the agents and intermediaries they had paid, which sent the police administration into action. After the arrests, one of the accused, Bhandari, disclosed the names of several high-ranking officials to whom he had paid substantial sums to get things done. The exposure of such a massive swindle serves as a stark reminder that individuals in positions of power, irrespective of their political party or office, tend to commit corruption. 

They often gravitate towards any agent or middleman who arrives with a suitcase full of cash, resorting to any means necessary to achieve their objectives. These powerful individuals even grant them easy access to ministry offices and confidential documents. While the latest fraud case appears to be significant due to the involvement of numerous influential figures, the nation has witnessed multiple instances of corruption and abuse of authority since the major political upheaval in 2006. Corruption scandals related to the Maoist cantonment, wide-body aircraft, Omni, Yeti, Baluwatar, Bansbari, and Matatirtha land scams, have repeatedly made headlines during this period.

Interestingly, not all individuals accused of these corruption incidents have faced legal consequences. The occurrence of corruption cases following the major political changes in 2008, when the country transitioned to a democratic federal republic system of administration, has raised concerns about the viability of our new system. No major financial scandal or corruption can take place in the nation without the assistance of politicians. In the case of refugee fraud, politicians and their aides were accused of enacting policies that favoured middlemen with criminal intentions. They attempted to register approximately 429 Nepalis as Bhutanese refugees, deceiving the nation by falsely claiming that these refugees had previously been excluded from registration. 

Criminalisation of politics

This incident exemplifies the criminalisation of politics in our nation. The concept of good governance in our new system has taken a severe beating, with many critics of the existing system accusing politicians of failing to fulfil their promises and instead engaging in corruption and abuse of authority. The latest bogus refugee scandal may cause further suffering for genuine Bhutanese refugees who have been stranded in Nepal for decades if the issue is not thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are not appropriately punished.

It is, however, encouraging to see that political parties and leaders have expressed the need for a comprehensive investigation of the fraud. For this to happen, they must assist the government, and investigating authorities so that the latter can produce the desired results by bringing the culprits to justice. The investigating authorities should be mindful that this case, like many others in the past, must not become a futile exercise. To restore faith in our political system and improve our nation's image among the international community, conducting an investigation freely and fairly and taking the probe to its logical conclusion by imposing strict punishments on the perpetrators is essential.

(The author is former managing editor of this daily.)

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