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 demography in 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 emigrate.


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 claim.


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.  refugee 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 refugee problem.

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.

Hopes Dashed

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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