Bhutanese refugees are Lhotshampas ("southerners"), a group of Nepali
language-speaking Bhutanese people, including the Kirat, Tamang,
Chhetri and Gurung peoples. These refugees registered
in refugee camps in eastern
Nepal during the 1990s as Bhutanese
citizens deported from
Bhutan during the ethnic cleansing carried out
Jigme Singye Wangchuk
Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan. As
Bhutan have yet
to implement any agreement on repatriation, many Bhutanese refugees
have since resettled to North America,
Europe under the
auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Lhotshampa also migrated to areas of
West Bengal and
India independently of the UNHCR.
1 Historical background
1.1 Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1958
1.2 Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1985
1.3 Bhutan's first census (1988)
1.4 Interethnic conflict (1990s)
Refugee camps in Nepal
2.1 Living conditions
2.3 Voluntary return
2.4 Third country resettlement
3 See also
5 Further reading
6 External links
Further information: Immigration in Bhutan
The earliest surviving records of Bhutan's history show that Tibetan
influence already existed from the 6th century. King Songtsen Gampo,
Tibet from the years 627 to 649, was responsible for the
construction of Bhutan's oldest surviving Buddhist temples, the Kyichu
Lhakhang in Paro and the
Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang. Settlement in
Bhutan by people of Tibetan origin happened by this time.
The first reports of people of Nepalese origin in
Bhutan was around
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal commissioned a few Newar
craftsmen from the
Kathmandu valley in
Nepal to make a silver stupa to
contain the ashes of his father Tempa Nima. Since then, people of
Nepalese origin started to settle in uninhabited areas of southern
Bhutan. The south soon became the country's main supplier of food.
Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, Lhotshampas, were flourishing along with
the economy of Bhutan. By 1930, according to British colonial
officials, much of the south was under cultivation by a population of
Nepali origin that amounted to some 60,000 people.
Bhutan of a large chunk of people from
Nepal happened in
the early 20th century.:162–165 This settlement was encouraged by
Bhutan House in
Kalimpong for the purpose of collecting taxes for
the government. In the 1930s, the
Bhutan House settled 5,000 families
of Nepali workers in
Tsirang alone. In the 1940s, the British
Political Officer Sir
Basil Gould was quoted as saying that when he
warned Sir Raja
Sonam Topgay Dorji
Sonam Topgay Dorji of
Bhutan House of the potential
danger of allowing so many ethnic Nepalese to settle in southern
Bhutan, he replied that "since they were not registered subjects they
could be evicted whenever the need arose." Furthermore, Lhotshampa
were forbidden from settling north of the subtropical
Expatriate Nepalese, who resettled in
West Bengal and
leaving Bhutan, formed the
Bhutan State Congress in 1952 to represent
the interests of other expatriates in
India as well as the communities
they had left behind. An effort to expand their operations into Bhutan
with a satyagraha (non-violent resistance) movement in 1954 failed in
the face of the mobilization of Bhutan's militia and a lack of
enthusiasm among those Nepalese in Bhutan, who did not want to risk
their already tenuous status. The Bhutanese government further
Bhutan State Congress movement by granting concessions to
the minority and allowing Nepalese representation in the National
Bhutan State Congress continued to operate in exile
until its decline and gradual disappearance in the early 1960s. The
leaders in exile were pardoned in 1969 and permitted to return.
Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1958
Further information: Bhutanese Citizenship Act 1958
Toward the end of the reign of the second King
Jigme Wangchuck in the
1950s, the numbers of new immigrants had swelled causing tension
between the King and the
Dorji family in the
Bhutan House. Amnesty
was given through the Citizenship Act of 1958 for all those who could
prove their presence in
Bhutan for at least 10 years prior to 1958.
On the other hand, the government also banned further immigration in
From 1961 onward however, with Indian support, the government began
planned developmental activities consisting of significant
infrastructure development works. Uncomfortable with India's desire to
bring in workers in large numbers from India, the government initially
tried to prove its own capacity by insisting that the planned
Phuntsholing highway be done with its own workforce. The
government also attempted to rein in immigration. While the
project was a success, completing the 182-kilometer highway in just
two years, the import of workers from
India was inevitable. With most
Bhutanese self-employed as farmers,
Bhutan lacked a ready supply of
workers willing to take up the major infrastructure projects. This led
eventually to the large-scale immigration of skilled and unskilled
construction workers from India.:162–165, 220 These
people were mostly of Nepali origin and settled in the south, as
required, among legal and illegal residents alike.:160–162 With
the pressures of the developmental activities, this trend remained
unchecked or inadequately checked for many years. Immigration check
posts and immigration offices were in fact established for the first
time only after 1990.
Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1985
Further information: Bhutanese Citizenship Act 1985
By the 1980s, the government had become acutely conscious not just of
widespread illegal immigration of people of Nepali origin into Bhutan,
but also of the total lack of integration even of long-term immigrants
into the political and cultural mainstream of the country. Most
Lhotshampa remained culturally Nepalese. For its part, the government
had largely ignored illegal settlement, but had encouraged
intermarriage with cash payments as a means of assimilation. However,
this was met with negligible success as far as actual assimilation.
There was also a perception of a Greater
Nepal movement emerging from
the Nepali-dominated areas in Nepal, Darjeeling,
Kalimpong and West
Bengal which the Bhutanese feared as Nepali chauvinism.:183–186,
Perceiving this growing dichotomy as a threat to national unity, the
government promulgated directives in the 1980s that sought to preserve
Bhutan's cultural identity as well as to formally embrace the citizens
of other ethnic groups in a "One Nation, One People" policy. The
government implied that the "culture" to be preserved would be that of
the various northern Bhutanese groups. To reinforce this movement, the
government forced the use of the Driglam Namzha, the Bhutanese
national dress and etiquette code. This policy required citizens to
wear the attire of the northern Bhutanese in public places under
penalty of fines, and reinforced the status of Dzongkha as the
national language. Nepali was discontinued as a subject in the
schools, thus bringing it at par with the status of the other
languages of Bhutan, none of which are taught.:68 Such
policies were criticized at first by human rights groups as well as
Bhutan's Nepalese economic migrant community, who perceived the policy
to be directed against them. The government, for its part, perceived
that free Nepali-language education had encouraged illegal immigration
into southern Bhutan.
The Citizenship Act of 1985 clarified and attempted to enforce the
Citizenship Act of 1958 in order to control the flood of illegal
immigration. In 1980, the government conducted its first real census
exercise. The basis for census citizenship classifications was the
1958 "cut off" year, the year that the Nepali population had first
received Bhutanese citizenship. Those individuals who could not
provide proof of residency prior to 1958 were adjudged to be illegal
Bhutan's first census (1988)
The issue was brought to the fore when the government of Bhutan
discovered in its first census the magnitude of the Lhotsampa
Lhotsampa of Nepali descent who had been living in
Bhutan since the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries were induced to leave
Bhutan after the country
carried out its first census in 1988. The government, however, failed
to properly train the census officials and this led to some tension
among the public. Placement in the census categories which ranged from
"Genuine Bhutanese" to "Non-nationals: Migrants and Illegal Settlers"
was often arbitrary, and could be arbitrarily changed. In some
cases members of the same family have been, and still are, placed in
different categories; some admittedly genuine Bhutanese have been
forced to flee with family members the government found to be illegal
Lhotshampa who considered their own
citizenship secure were prevented by government officials from
obtaining proper documentation, losing their property.:37–39
The government also attempted to enforce the Bhutanese driglam namzha
dress and language code at the same time, in order to have the
Lhotshampa population assimilate into
Ngalop society.:38–39 The
government explained its cultural identity programs as a defense
against the first political problems since the Wangchuck Dynasty was
established in 1907 and the greatest threat to the nation's survival
since the seventeenth century. Its major concern was to avoid a repeat
of events that had occurred in 1975 when the monarchy in
ousted by a Nepalese majority in a plebiscite and
Sikkim was absorbed
into India. In an effort to resolve the interethnic strife, the Druk
Gyalpo made frequent visits to the troubled southern districts, and he
ordered the release of hundreds of arrested "antinationals." He also
expressed the fear that the large influx of Nepalese might lead to
their demand for a separate state in the next ten to twenty years, in
much the same way as happened in the once-independent monarchy of
Sikkim in the 1970s.
However, these measures combined to alienate even bona fide citizens
of Nepali descent. Some ethnic Nepalese began protesting perceived
discrimination, demanding exemption from the government decrees aimed
at enhancing Bhutanese national identity. The reaction to the royal
decrees in Nepalese majority communities surfaced as ethnic strife
directed against non-Lhotshampa. Reactions also took form as protest
India among Nepalese who had left Bhutan. The
Druk Gyalpo was accused of "cultural suppression," and his government
was charged by antigovernment leaders with human rights violations,
including the torture of prisoners; arbitrary arrest and detention;
denial of due process; and restrictions of freedoms of speech and
press, peaceful organization and assembly, and workers' rights.
Antigovernment protest marches involved more than 20,000 participants,
including some from a movement that had succeeded in coercing India
into accepting local autonomy for ethnic Nepalese in West Bengal, who
crossed the border from
West Bengal and
Assam into six districts
across Bhutan. As the census exercise came to an end, the southern
Bhutan became a hotbed of militancy for several years.
Supporting the anti-government activities were expatriate Nepalese
political groups and supporters in
Nepal and India. Between 2,000 and
12,000 Nepalese were reported to have fled
Bhutan in the late 1980s,
and according to a 1991 report, even high-level Bhutanese government
officials of Nepalese origin had resigned their positions and moved to
Nepal. Some 5 million Nepalese were living in settlements in India
Bhutan border in 1990. Nepalese were not necessarily welcome
in India, where ethnic strife conspired to push them back through the
largely unguarded Bhutanese frontier. The
Bhutan Peoples' Party
operated among the large Nepalese community in northern India. A
second group, the
Bhutan People's Forum for Human Rights (a
counterpart of the
Nepal People's Forum for Human Rights), was
established in 1998 in
Nepal by Tek Nath Rizal, a
former trusted official of the Royal Advisory Council who acted as a
chief liaison between the government and the
Lhotshampa in the south,
as well as a former member of the National Assembly of Bhutan. The
Bhutan Students Union and the
Bhutan Aid Group-
Nepal also were
involved in political activism.
In November 1989,
Tek Nath Rizal was allegedly abducted in eastern
Nepal by Bhutanese police and returned to Thimphu, where he was
imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and treason. He was also accused
of instigating the racial riots in southern Bhutan. Rizal was
sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993.
Interethnic conflict (1990s)
Interethnic conflict generally escalated during the 1990s. In February
1990, antigovernment activists detonated a remote-control bomb on a
Phuntsholing and set fire to a seven-vehicle convoy.
In September 1990, clashes occurred with the Royal
Bhutan Army, which
was ordered not to fire on protesters. The men and women marchers were
organized by S.K. Neupane and other members of the illegal Bhutan
Peoples' Party, which reportedly urged the marchers to demand
democracy and human rights for all Bhutanese citizens. Some villagers
willingly joined the protests; others did so under duress. The
government branded the party, reportedly established by
anti-monarchists and backed by the
Nepali Congress Party
Nepali Congress Party and the
Communist Party of
Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), as a terrorist
organization. The party allegedly led its members – said to be armed
with rifles, muzzle-loading guns, knives, and homemade grenades – in
raids on villages in southern Bhutan, disrobing people wearing
traditional Bhutanese garb; extorting money; and robbing, kidnapping,
and killing people. Reportedly, there were hundreds of casualties,
although the government admitted to only two deaths among security
forces. Other sources indicated that more than 300 persons were
killed, 500 wounded, and 2,000 arrested in clashes with security
forces. Along with the above-mentioned violence, vehicle hijackings,
kidnappings, extortions, ambushes, and bombings took place, schools
were closed (some were destroyed), and post offices, police, health,
forest, customs, and agricultural posts were destroyed. For their
part, security forces were charged by the
Bhutan Peoples' Party, in
protests made to
Amnesty International and the International Human
Rights Commission, with murder and rape and carrying out a "reign of
terror". In support of the expatriate Nepalese, the general secretary
of the Nepali Congress Party, the ruling party in Nepal, called on the
Druk Gyalpo to establish a multiparty democracy. Some of the
organizers of the marches were arrested and detained. The
Bhutanese government admitted only to the arrest of 42 people involved
in "anti-national" activities in late 1989, plus 3 additional
individuals who had been extradited from Nepal. All but 6 were
reportedly later released; those remaining in jail were charged with
treason. By September 1990, more than 300 additional prisoners held in
the south were released following the Druk Gyalpo's tour of southern
In the face of government resistance to demands that would
institutionalize separate identities within the nation, protesters in
the south insisted that the
Bhutan Peoples' Party flag be flown in
front of administrative headquarters and that party members be allowed
to carry the kukri, a traditional Nepalese curved knife, at all times.
They also called for the right not to wear the Bhutanese national
dress, and insisted that schools and government offices stay closed
until their demands were met. The unmet demands were accompanied by
additional violence and deaths in October 1990. At the same time,
India pledged "all possible assistance that the royal government might
seek in dealing with this problem" and assured that it would protect
the frontier against groups seeking illegal entry to Bhutan.
By early 1991, the press in
Nepal was referring to insurgents in
Bhutan as "freedom fighters". The
Bhutan Peoples' Party
claimed that more than 4,000 advocates of democracy had been arrested
by the Royal
Bhutan Army. Charges were made that some of those
arrested had been murdered outside Bhutanese police stations and that
some 4,200 persons had been deported.
To deter and regulate Nepalese migration into
Bhutan from India, the
Druk Gyalpo ordered more regular censuses, improved border checks, and
better government administration in the southern districts. The more
immediate action of forming citizens' militias took place in October
1990 as a backlash to the demonstrations. Internal travel regulations
were made more strict with the issue of new multipurpose
identification cards by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 1990.
By the end of 1990, the government admitted the serious effects of the
anti-government violence. It was announced that foreign- exchange
earnings had dropped and that the GDP had decreased significantly
because of terrorist activities.
In 1992 interethnic conflict again flared, prompting a peak in
Lhotshampa departures, totaling over 100,000 by 1996. Many
Lhotshampa claim to have been forcibly evicted by the military, who
forced them to sign "Voluntary Migration Form" documents stating they
had left willingly.:39
Tek Nath Rizal was granted a royal pardon and left for Nepal
to form the "People's Forum for Human Rights".
Refugee camps in Nepal
Further information: Refugees in Nepal
During the 1990s several thousand
Lhotshampa settled in the refugee
camps that were set up by the
UNHCR in Nepal. The
most of the arrivals between 1990 and 1993 on a prima facie basis.
By 1996, the camp populations had exploded to 100,000 and peaked
at more than 107,000 persons.
Bhutanese refugee camps in Eastern Nepal: Timai, Goldhap, Khudunabari,
Sanischare, Beldangi 1 & 2.
The government of
Nepal and the
UNHCR have managed the below seven
refugee camps since the arrival of the
Bhutanese refugees in the
Populations of concern to
UNHCR in refugee camps between 2006 and 2015
Beldangi 1 & 2
Camp conditions were initially rife with malnutrition and disease
including measles, scurvy, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, and
beriberi, although camp conditions improved markedly between 1995 and
2005. Education was among the best services provided within the camps,
generally better than in the surrounding countryside of Nepal. Camps,
however, remained significantly overpopulated through 2006.
Malnourishment, due to age-based food rationing, violence against
women and children, as well as marginalization and radicalization
remained serious issues.:31–32
Bhutanese refugees in
under conditions of restricted or controlled movement, restricted
ability to work, and limited access to the local justice
system.:31–32 The Danish humanitarian organization, Global
Medical Aid has aided
Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
Since 2009 the population of the camps shrunk as can be seen in the
table above. Due to this reduction the
Goldhap and Timai camps have
been merged with the Beldangi II camp. The offices are
preparing to close or merge other camps and predicted to complete the
refugee resettlement operation within 10 years. By 2015, only the
Beldangi and Sanischare camps remained, with a combined total of
17,337 residents. However, there are around 10,000 refugees left in
the camps, who are either not eligible or do not want to be resettled.
Remaining are mainly elderly people who have lost their support
network - through resettlement - and are affected by increasing rates
of depression, substance misuse and suicide.
The government of
Bhutan claims that among them are local Nepalese
people who were attracted to the camps by their resources.
Whether the refugees deserve the label of "Bhutanese refugees" is
questioned based on the fact that no proper screening was done by the
UNHCR when they opened the camps. Alenxander Casella, a one-time
Director in UNHCR, writes "Normally, the UNHCR, before intervening,
would have undertaken a survey of the caseload to determine exactly
their nationality and reasons for departure. Had this been undertaken,
the inescapable conclusion would have been that the overwhelming
majority were actually Nepalese and hence, by the fact that they were
in their own country, did not qualifying for refugee status".
In 2000, after years of discussion,
Nepal reached an
agreement about the voluntary return of certain Bhutanese refugees
living in Nepalese camps. However, points of contention included that
some camp inhabitants have never been citizens, or some not even
Bhutan before attaining refugee status. Furthermore, the
Bhutanese government regarded many political groups among the Nepalese
Lhotshampa community, such as the
Bhutan Peoples' Party (BPP) and
Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP), as terrorist or anti-national
groups. Further complicating repatriation, the land and other
property formerly held by
Lhotshampa refugees have been repopulated
and taken over by
Ngalop settlers – including government and
military members – under government
In March 2001, the first verification of
Bhutanese refugees eligible
for repatriation commenced in Nepalese refugee camps. Actual
repatriation was then estimated to occur within one year. However,
progress stalled for over a decade. In 2003, a Bhutanese
verification team was attacked and injured in Jhapa, resulting in
further delay. As of 2011, over 200 refugees in the Khudunabari
refugee camp alone had been certified. However, no Bhutanese refugees
had been repatriated. In April 2011,
Nepal again opened
talks on repatriation, however the
UNHCR remains committed to third
country resettlement in light of Bhutan's refusal to guarantee full
citizenship and other human rights for returnees. As of July
2011, the governments of
Nepal had held at least 15 rounds
of bilateral talks with no practical solution reached; although
Bhutanese state media echoed Bhutan's insistence on continued talks
with Nepal, it has signaled its preference for third country
resettlement. Nepal, for its part, has not accepted the refugees
into its own population.:148:29–30, 40
United States Department of State
United States Department of State identified leaders within
refugee camps intent on repatriation as hampering some resettlement
efforts with disinformation and intimidation, despite generally poor
prospects for repatriation.
Third country resettlement
For many years the government of
Nepal did not allow resettlement for
Bhutanese refugees. This only changed in the second half of the 2000s
after lengthy negotiations.
Bhutanese refugees were an attractive
group for receiving countries as they posed much less of a security
risk as for example Iraqi, Somali or Afghan refugees.
UNHCR and different partners that formed the "Core Group on
Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal" announced in 2007 to resettle the
majority of the 108,000 registered Bhutanese refugees. The U.S.
offered to take 60,000 and began receiving them in 2008.
Australia, Canada, Norway, the
Denmark offered to
resettle 10,000 each and
New Zealand offered to resettle 600
refugees over a period of five years starting in 2008. By January
2009, more than 8,000 and by November 2010, more than 40,000
Bhutanese refugees were resettled in various countries. Canada
offered to accept additional 6,500
Bhutanese refugees by the end of
Norway has already resettled 200
Bhutanese refugees and Canada
has agreed to accept up to 5000 through to 2012.
In November 2015 it was announced that 100,000 refugees have been
resettled abroad (85 percent of them to the USA) and in February
2017 the number rose to a total of 108,513.
According to Raj Khadka resettlement has provided the opportunity of
starting a new life to these refugees, but the challenges that they
are facing in the labour market are a big hurdle in establishing
themselves in the new countries that are quite different from their
Third country resettlement
Third country resettlement of
Bhutanese refugees by receiving country
Ethnic cleansing in Bhutan
Immigration to Bhutan
Demographics of Bhutan
Politics of Bhutan
Tek Nath Rizal
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Hutt, Michael (2004). Unbecoming Citizens. Oxford University
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"Punya Foundation". Retrieved 2011-08-07.
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