Bhutanese Refugee Crisis in Nepal
Many are probably completely unaware
of a refugee crisis taking place in the eastern region of Nepal.
Currently, some 96,000 refugees are accommodated and assisted in seven
refugee camps in eastern Nepal with assistance from the UNHCR. An
additional 15,000 refugees are scattered throughout Nepal, attempting to
rebuild their shattered lives.
With one sixth of the population in
exile, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan has the dubious distinction of being
one of the world's highest per capita generator of refugees. The roots
of the problem lie in the government's attempts to alter the kingdom's
favor of the ruling ethnic group. Since 1990, over 100,000 thousand
southern Bhutanese of Nepalese ethnicity have been made refugees after
being forcibly evicted, forced to flee persecution and repression, or
expelled after being coerced into signing "voluntary"
emigration forms. Ten years later, the refugees remain in camps in Nepal
administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The global apathy toward the issue
of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal is appalling. India has stood by and done
nothing even though they are a key player in the situation as they
allowed the refugees transit across India en route to Nepal.
Setting the Stage
Bhutan is a country ruled by a
hereditary monarch, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The King is
both the Head of State and Head of
Government although since 1998 much of the powers have been
transferred to a Council of Ministers.
The population of Bhutan is a subject of much speculation since the
exact figures have never been divulged by the government. While
government estimates have gone as high as 1.4 million, the King once
divulged that the number was actually closer to 600,000.
Taking this figure as more likely, the total population at the end of
2000AD is around 750,000.
The reason behind this secrecy is
highly political. Bhutan is inhabitated by three main ethnic groups.
Western Bhutan, the centre of power, is inhabited by Ngalongs of Tibetan origin (15-20%). Eastern
Bhutanese, the Sharchops, are of Indo-Mongoloid or Tibeto-Burman
(40-45%). Both these groups share a common religion (Buddhism)
and Tibetan-derived culture. The third group are ethnic Nepalese who are
mainly Hindus, and comprise immigrants of more recent origin (late 19th
century onwards) who were granted citizenship in 1958. They make up
between 40 and 50% of the population. Ethnic Nepalese have lived in the
southern part of the country for centuries, and the early phases of
economic development at the turn of the century brought a large influx
of additional ethnic Nepalese. As part of larger migration patterns,
many families have, for generations, lived within Bhutan and considered
themselves proud Bhutanese while keeping their Nepali tongue and Hindu
rituals intact as evidence of their ethnicity.
The roots of the crisis in southern
Bhutan lie in the leadership's concern over the growing southern
Bhutanese population, both as a percentage and in terms of real numbers.
Perceiving a threat of being swamped by ethnic Nepalis, a policy with an
eventual goal of balancing the demographic pattern was initiated in the
mid-1980s; the idea was to set right a historical error of judgement -
the grant of nationality in 1958 to
ethnic Nepalese settled in the south.The grant of citizenship in 1958
was by royal decree. The new citizens were not granted papers nor was
there any major changes in the lives of the people then. Bhutan was
still a medieval kingdom in 1958 - there were no motorable roads, no
electricity, no hospitals or other government public facilities and just
5 primary schools in the entire kingdom. There was no individual
certification of grant of nationality because neither the government nor
people considered it necessary at the time.
In 1985, the government enacted a
new Citizenship Actand began a census of inclusion and not exclusion -
each person was expected to prove he/she was domiciled in Bhutan in 1958
to qualify as a Bhutanese by registration according to the 1985
Citizenship Act. The government started with a fresh slate; the onus was
on the individual to prove his or her credentials. Officials demanded
tax receipts for exactly the year 1958, not even ones issued earlier
would do ostensibly because a person may have left the country before
1958 and returned only after the cut-off year. In many cases, persons
were unable to produce the documentation necessary, such as land tax
receipts from 1958, to show residency nearly 30 years before.
In conjunction, the government began
aggressive efforts to assert a national culture, to tighten control over
southern regions, to control illegal immigration, to expel ethnic
Nepalese, and to promote national integration. Beginning in 1989, more
discriminatory measures were introduced, aimed at shaping a new national
identity, known as Drukpa.Drukpa is based on the customs of the minority
Ngalong ethnic group. Measures included a national dress for official
occasions and school uniform, the teaching of Dzongkha as a second
language in all schools, and an end to instruction in Nepali as a second
language (English is the medium of instruction in all schools).
During this period, citizenship
became a highly contentious issue. Requirements for citizenship first
were formalized in the Citizenship Law of 1958, which granted
citizenship to all adults who owned land and had lived in the country
for at least 10 years. However,
in 1985 the new citizenship law significantly tightened requirements for
citizenship and resulted in the denaturalization of many ethnic
Nepalese. The Marriage Act
of 1977 had prescribed that only children born of Bhutanese fathers, not
either spouse as before, would be considered citizens. The 1985
Citizenship Act tightened this requirement further and required both
parents to be Bhutanese for citizenship by birth. Applied
retrospectively and in tandem with the 1958 tax receipt stipulation, the
government could declare tens of thousands of legal southern Bhutanese
as non-nationals. A person born in Bhutan in 1959 suddenly became an
illegal resident during the 1988 census when either parent could not
prove his/her presence in the country in 1958, the cut-off year. Thus
began the woes of southern Bhutanese.
Attempts by southern Bhutanese to
persuade the government to review the census implementation were
unsuccessful. The government even deemed such attempts acts of sedition.
Youth in schools, colleges and villages became agitated and began to
express dissent. This gave the government an excuse to become more
aggressive and overtly discriminatory. The 'One Nation, One People'
policy was adopted. A green-belt plan was unveiled that threatened to
make a third of all southern Bhutanese homeless. When the people reacted
by rising up in mass protests all over southern Bhutan, the government
began a massive crackdown. Thousands were arrested and among them
hundreds detained for years without trial.
The 1985 Citizenship Act also
provides for the revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized
citizen who "has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any
manner whatsoever to the King, country, and people of Bhutan." In
even more draconian measures, the government declared that anyone who
had left Bhutan to assist friends and family in their exodus would also
be revoked of citizenship and "...such people's family members
living in the same household will also be held fully responsible and
forfeit their citizenship."
Outraged by what they saw as a
campaign of repression, ethnic Nepalese mounted a series of
demonstrations, sometimes violent, in September 1990.
The protests were spearheaded by the newly formed Bhutan People's
Party, which demanded full citizenship rights for ethnic Nepalese, the
reintroduction of Nepali as a medium of education in the south, and
democratic reforms. Characterizing the BPP as a "terrorist"
movement, the authorities cracked down on its activities and ordered the
closure of local Nepalese schools, clinics, and development programs.
Many ethnic Nepalese schools reportedly were turned into Army
barracks. There were
credible reports that many ethnic Nepalese activists were beaten and
tortured while in custody, and that security forces committed acts of
rape. There also were
credible reports that militants, including BPP members, attacked and
killed census officers and other officials, and engaged in bombings.
Local officials took advantage of the climate of repression to
coerce ethnic Nepalese to sell their land below its fair value and to
Starting from a small group of
dissidents who escaped the crackdown launched by the authorities, the
refugee community grew as security forces plundered and terrorised
villagers in the south following the protest demonstrations of
September-October 1990. But the exodus peaked during in the first half
of 1992 when the government initiated a campaign of systematic expulsion
by forcing people to sign "voluntary" emigration forms before
deporting them. The flood of refugees eventually stopped, but not before
a hundred thousand had been forced to leave Bhutan. Just as people had
suddenly mysteriously "volunteered" to leave in droves, there
were no more "emigrants " - the government had met its target
of reducing its southern population by a third.
According to Amnesty International,
entire villages sometimes were evicted en masse in retaliation for an
attack on a local government official, forcibly signing "voluntary
migration forms" as they left under threat of torture and
imprisonment. By August
1991, according to NGO
reports, 2,500 refugees already were camped illegally in Nepal, with a
steady stream still coming from Bhutan.
The UNHCR began providing food and shelter in September of that
year, and by year's end, there were 6,000 refugees in Nepal.
The number swelled to approximately 80,000 by June 1993, when the
UNHCR began individual screening of refugees.
The flow slowed considerably thereafter; there were no new
refugee arrivals from Bhutan to the camps during the year.
According to UNHCR, there were 98,269 ethnic Nepalese refugees in
7 refugee camps in eastern Nepal, as of June 30.
Much of this increase since 1993 is the result of births to
residents of the camps. An
additional 15,000 refugees, according to UNHCR estimates, are living
outside the camps in Nepal and India.
The Government maintains that many
of those who departed the country in 1991-92 were Nepalese or Indian
citizens who came to the country after the enactment of the 1958
Citizenship law but were not detected until a census in 1988.
The Government also claims that many persons registered in the
camps as refugees may never have resided in the country. According to
the UNHCR, the overwhelming majority of refugees who have entered the
camps since screening began in June 1993 have documentary proof of
Bhutanese nationality. The Government also contends that many ethnic
Nepalese left the country voluntarily, thus renouncing their Bhutanese
citizenship. However, human rights organizations credibly dispute this
A Nepal-Bhutan ministerial committee
has met ten times since 1994 in efforts to resolve the Bhutanese refugee
problem. Bhutan has continually stalled the proceeding claiming Nepal's
political uncertainty. Finally, in late December 2000, with pressure
mounting from the international community and significantly, the United
States and under threat of aid denial, Bhutan finally agreed with Nepal
to a system to verify the nationality of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal in
preparation for their for return to Bhutan.
verifications began in March 2001. However, the Bhutanese government
efforts to resettle persons onto the land once occupied by refugees
continues to represent an obstacle to a negotiated resolution of the
Family members of refugees who are
still residing in Bhutan are routinely discriminated against. A
resolution adopted by the National Assembly in July 1997 prohibits these
still-resident family members of ethnic Nepalese refugees from holding
jobs with the Government or in the armed forces.
Under the resolution, those holding such jobs were to be retired
involuntarily. The Government states that 429 civil servants, many of
them ethnic Nepalese, were retired compulsorily in accordance with the
July 1997 National Assembly resolution, and that the program was
terminated in November. The Government also began a program of
resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other regions of the country on land
in the southern part of the country vacated by the ethnic Nepalese now
living in refugee camps in Nepal. Human
rights groups maintain that this action prejudices any eventual outcome
of negotiations over the return of the refugees to the country. In many
cases, Buddhist Bhutanese are reluctant to resettle the land, fearing
the eventual return of the rightful owners, and are often coerced and
even forced to move against their wishes.
The verification process of
Bhutanese refugees started at 9.30 AM ( Nepal Time) on March 26, 2001 by
a specially formed Joint Verification Team, made of up Nepali and
Bhutanese officials. The verification was to proceed at a rate of ten
families a day. It was disclosed that only Bhutanese team interviewed
the refugees. Many are outraged at the pace of verification and demand
that more JVT teams be formed. Many believe the Bhutanese government to
not be proceeding in good faith, instead using a delaying tactic with
the hopes that as the years pass, eventual repatriation will grow more
difficult. At the current rate of ten families a day, the verification
process will take over seven years to complete. And there is the in the
selection of Dr. Sonam Tenzing, Director of Bhutanese Home Ministry as
the Bhutanese head of JVT interviewing the very refugees he was
responsible for forceful eviction while he was the District head of
Sarbhang district in Southern Bhutan.
Sources: Amnesty International,
UNHCR & the Bhootan Organization
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