As the world is currently witnessing wars at different places, the probability of people being displaced is increasing every day. Innocent people are dying every day and are driven away from their countries without any fault of theirs. This has an impact on the dignity of human lives. “Criminals are there in every community, but treating all refugees as criminals is depriving them of human rights,” said Razia Sultana, who is a Rohingya refugee herself and also a dedicated human rights activist.
A global webinar was hosted on 29th October 2023 by South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) to create awareness of the refugee status in South Asia (SA). SA countries have faced turbulent situations within their own countries and with their neighbours. As a result, most SA countries are host to several displaced communities who have had to leave their home towns and take refuge willingly or unwillingly. Rohingyas in Bangladesh, Bhutanese, Tibetan and African Refugees in Nepal and Afghan refugees in Pakistan, among others, are currently living in countries which are not theirs but have given them shelters.
Looking at the situation of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, it can be said without hesitation that refugee crisis does not happen only when the flight is commenced. The Bhutanese refugees came into Nepal via India in early 1990s and were given shelter in eastern Nepal. International agencies raised issues, but they were not repatriated back into Bhutan and their home land. Instead the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supported resettlement of more than 113,500 Bhutanese refugees to eight different countries from 2007 to 2016 and claimed that this was the largest group resettlement programme globally.
Suraj Budhathoki, a Bhutanese refugee campaigner now resettled in the USA, shared the fact that although the Bhutanese resettlement programme is showcased globally as a good example, it actually has not been able to address their overall requirements. He said that they face the largest number of mental health issues in the USA. Under the third-country resettlement programme, about 95 per cent of the total 120,000 Bhutanese refugees were made to settle in eight different countries, including the USA, UK, Canada and Australia. The remaining refugees in Nepal are still struggling and support to them has been drying over the years.
During early 1990s Nepal was wondering how to manage the needs of the Bhutanese refugees who came to Nepal, but now Nepali citizens are wondering what will happen to the Nepali people who have been faked as Bhutanese refugees and sent to the USA. In 2023, a massive human trafficking scandal has been exposed by Nepali media which shows that several individuals, including a former home minister and other politicians, are accused of being involved in forging documents of 875 Nepali citizens, turning them into fake Bhutanese refugees and swindling millions of rupees to send them off to the USA. This racket has exposed another corruption that takes advantage of the refugees.
According to UNHCR records, Nepal hosts around 20,000 refugees including those from Tibet, Bhutan and other states, including Africa. The main influx of refugees to Nepal commenced in 1959 from Tibet and then in 1990/91 from Bhutan. During the SAPAN webinar, Ravi Nair, the executive Director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, said that when the Bhutanese of Nepali origin was being evacuated from Bhutan, he was there and when he protested against it, he was handed over to the Indian police.
Afghan refugees have been coming to Pakistan for the last 45 years due to different regime change, said Saba Khattak, a distinguished former member of the Planning Commission of Pakistan. “People want to visit different countries but not as refugees, I lived in Pakistan for 17 years from 1994 till 2001 as a refugee and want to thank Pakistani people for their patience in hosting Afghan refugees for 45 years,” says Dr Sima Samar, a member of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel on International Displacement and the high-level Advisory board on Mediation. She said that she was again a refugee now for the second time and it was very difficult to leave all you have and go to another country for refuge. More than 3 million Afghan are refugees in Pakistan. “But recently I cannot understand the stance of the Pakistani government towards the Afghan refugees. People should not treat refugees as a problem but rather welcome them as opportunities,” she stresses.
Nair mentioned that the judicial protecting of human rights issues of refugees is extremely weak in the region. “India had a fairly decent Supreme Court in the past, but now I am fighting on how they have been treating the minority rights and refugee rights. I am a petitioner in one case in the Supreme Court and several cases in the High Court,” he said. Shireen Haq, a Bangladeshi leader, who advocates women’s rights and Rohingya refugees, shared a story of a Rohingya woman, who was raped by five men, she lost consciousness and when she regained her consciousness her husband and one of her children had been killed. She and her brother managed to escape to Bangladesh after a ten-day walk thorough forests.
All refugees suffer all aspects of violence against their human rights but women and children face the worst. Mass rape of Rohingya women and similar incidents among refugees keep happening. It is extremely important for a global movement to ensure human dignity of the refugees and make governments answerable to any crime against them.
(Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights advocate firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: @NamrataSharmaP)