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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12938

Senator Bourne asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 14 January 2000:

(1) Is the Australian Government aware that there are seven camps with approximately 96 000 Bhutanese refugees in the Jhapa district of Nepal.

(2) Is support being given to those refugees; if so, what form does it take.

(3) Has the Government made any representations to the Bhutanese Government to accept the refugees' immediate repatriation.

Mr Downer (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

(1) Yes. The Australian Government is aware that there are camps in this part of Nepal, and indeed have been since the early 1990's. The Australian Government is concerned for the plight of the refugees currently in Nepal.

(2) Over the period 1997-2000, Australia provided a little over AUD600,000 to the Australian Lutheran World Service for assistance to Bhutanese refugees. The assistance included maintenance of camp infrastructure and repair of 4,000 huts and administrative and technical skills training to 148 people. The project also aimed to improve relations between refugees and people in nearby Nepalese communities by providing or upgrading school buildings, latrines, furniture and educational material, a library, hand pumps, gravity water supplies and family latrines.

Due to significant aid-related pressures in Australia's own region, no further direct assistance this financial year is likely to be forthcoming for Bhutanese refugees. However, Australia will contribute to World Food programme (WFP) development activities in Nepal (AUD2.6 million) and Bhutan (AUD615,000) this financial year.

Australia supports UNHCR in its ongoing efforts to find a durable solution to the plight of the Bhutanese refugees and would be happy to consider some funding to assist with their repatriation to Bhutan or their permanent resettlement within Nepal.

(3) The Australian Government continues to encourage the Governments of Bhutan and Nepal to find a workable solution to the refugee problem. While Australia does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan, the Australian Government does, through its High Commission in New Delhi, make periodic representations to the Bhutanese Government to encourage them to pursue constructive solutions to the problem. The most recent of these was at the end of 1998 when Australia's High Commissioner to India visited Bhutan and spoke with senior members of the Bhutanese Government.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, The Hon. Tim Fischer MP, visited Bhutan in 1997. At that time he expressed the concerns of the Australian Government on this issue to the relevant Bhutanese authorities, including the King of Bhutan himself. The issue has also been raised with the Government of India.

The Australian Government welcomes recent indications that Bhutan and Nepal will soon resume their dialogue on the refugees. The Australian Government hopes that the Governments of Bhutan and Nepal can agree to a long term solution to this problem, with either Nepal allowing the refugees to settle, or the Bhutanese Government allowing the repatriation of the displaced persons.