Can Conflict Resolution Reduce Fear in Crime Victims?

A Case Study of Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal

The large number of refugees currently residing in camps characterized by high crime rates suggests a need for understanding the best means for conflict resolution in these settings. UNHCR, the UN-mandated organization tasked with the protection of refugees, aims to uphold the rule of law in refugee camps and ensure that victims of crimes have access to remedies for violations of their rights by strengthening legal avenues for redress with implementing partners. However, empirical evidence on the topic of victims’ justice needs of refugees and other displaced persons is scarce. In their new Working Paper, entitled “Can Conflict Resolution Reduce Fear in Crime Victims? A Case Study of Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal”, Dr. Malini Laxminarayan and Dr. Ilse Griek examine this issue.

In the early 1990s, thousands of Bhutanese refugees fled to India and Nepal in search of a safe haven from persecution, violence and discrimination in their home country. The Government of Nepal agreed to host the refugees, with the assistance of the UNHCR. Nepal allowed the refugees to enter, but did not consider local integration a feasible solution and relegated the Bhutanese to camps. Within the camps, they established a parallel mediation-based legal system, which they used to respond to crimes and incidents that occurred in the camps. Refugees also had access to the Nepalese legal system and victims of crime could report their cases to the police. In practice however, these routes were relatively underused. Although Nepalese legal institutions did play a role in more serious cases, refugees overwhelmingly preferred turning to members of their own community for help rather than seeking out the administration of justice from the Nepalese authorities. Refugees feared the police and judiciary would show them the same discrimination and unfair treatment they had experienced in Bhutan.

The paper uses research conducted in 2011 that forms part of a larger research project that culminated in a book entitled “Human Rights in Translation: Dispute Resolution in the Bhutanese Refugee Camps in Nepal” by Ilse Griek. The data in the current working paper was collected through more than 700 quantitative interviews with victims of crime, utilizing a questionnaire developed by one of the authors. After training the research assistants, they approached homes in the camps to investigate victims’ experiences in their search for justice.

This study aims to reduce the current gap in the literature examining vulnerable populations such as Bhutanese refugees, in relation to the experiences with formal and informal justice mechanisms. More specifically, the paper examines different aspects of conflict resolution within Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal and investigates the role of factors related to the legal procedures and outcomes in reducing fear among crime victims.

The findings show that several factors relating to both legal processes and outcomes play a significant role in reducing fear among victims. The legal procedure was not very successful in reducing fear among Bhutanese refugees, contributing only to a small to moderate extent. Only the extent to which respondents felt they could express themselves to the decision maker played a larger and more positive role, contributing between a moderate and large extent. Several variables were significantly associated with the process’s ability to decrease fear for the victim: the type of crime (domestic violence versus non-domestic violence); response/outcome of the case (nothing being done, the outcome ending in divorce); a positive impact on the victim’s relationship with the offender and the victim’s experience of having a voice towards the decision maker and the opportunity to ask the offender questions.

The findings of the paper have implications for the steps that humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, could take to prioritize in their efforts to improve upon the justice experience of victims in refugee settings. It is clear that the voice of victims– their ability to express themselves towards the decision-maker – is a significant predictor of satisfaction with the legal system. In informal settings that mirrors restorative justice methods, attention should be given not only to the interaction between the parties but also to the interaction between the parties and the decision-maker. Furthermore, the significance of being able to interact with the offender and repair the relationship highlights the importance of informal, traditional methods of justice resolution.

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