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THE BHUTANESE REFUGEES IN NEPAL A TOOL FOR SETTLEMENT WORKERS AND SPONSORS

Prepared by IOM Damak, Nepal 20082
I. Historical Background of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
The Bhutanese refugees are descendants of Nepalese migrants that settled in
Southern Bhutan in the late 1890’s. Originally recruited by the Government of Bhutan to
clear the jungles of Southern Bhutan in the late 1890’s, they were called Lhotshampas,
meaning ‘People from the South’. Over time the Lhotshampas prospered in Bhutan and
became high-ranking government officials and educators. According to the 1988 census
they made up 45% of the population of Bhutan.
In 1958 the Bhutanese government passed the Citizenship Act, which granted the
Lhotshampas the right to Bhutanese citizenship. Every citizen was issued a land tax
receipt. From 1958 to 1985 the Bhutanese government introduced integration programs
and incentives for intermarriage between the Lhotshampas and other ethnic groups of
Bhutan. However, the Buddhist Druk majority became increasingly concerned over the
growing population and power of the mainly Hindu Lhotshampas.
In 1988 the government introduced a census, which took place only in Southern
Bhutan. It required that each citizen produce the 1958 land tax receipt. Following this
census the Lhotshampas were re-classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ despite having produced
land tax receipts from 1958.
In 1989 King Jigme Singey Wangchuk adopted a “One Bhutan, One People” policy.
Nepali language was removed from school curricula and it was mandatory for the entire
population to wear the national dress of the north. The southern Bhutanese resisted the
policy, as there was still a strong attachment to their Nepalese cultural heritage.
Demonstrations ensued and the government began to crack down on what they deemed
were ‘anti-nationals’ from Southern Bhutan. There were widespread reports by
Lhotshampas of arrests, detention, rape, and torture. They reported being forced to sign
‘voluntary migration’ forms. By 1991 thousands had started to flee for Nepal via India by
truck. In 1992 UNHCR established the first camps in Eastern Nepal built to house the
more than 105,000 refugees. An additional 20,000 refugees (estimate) fled to other
parts of Nepal and India. An interesting fact about this population is that they all arrived
at roughly the same time in Nepal. There were not waves of refugees arriving at different
times over the years as in many other refugee situations. Fifteen rounds of talks between
the governments of Nepal and Bhutan on the Bhutanese refugees’ right to return have
yielded no results. Not one single refugee has been repatriated. In 2007 the government
of Nepal accepted the option of third country resettlement. Resettlement was hotly
contested and even violent up until this past year. Since the first departures to the U.S.,
Australia, and New Zealand last year, negative attitudes toward resettlement have
changed dramatically. Many of the vehemently anti-resettlement leaders are themselves
now applying for resettlement. Some small groups are still actively opposed to
resettlement in the camps. 3
Settlement Considerations: This is a very diverse group of refugees in terms of
life experience. Some have gone to University and worked outside the camps. They can be
highly educated and have lived in ‘westernized’ conditions. Others have never left the
camps and have had no exposure to western amenities. The refugees have been dependent
on aid organizations to meet their basic needs for seventeen years. It can be very
challenging to shift attitudes and expectations for refugees who have spent so much of
their lives in refugee camps
The Bhutanese refugees have many questions and concerns about their legal status
in Canada. Their citizenship was lost in Bhutan and there is concern that this could happen
to them again someday. There is hope of returning to Bhutan for many, even if it is just to
visit.
II. Religion, Culture and Tradition
Married women wear a ‘sindoor’ which is a mark on the top of the forehead made from vermilion and
other herbs. Additionally, it is common to wear a ‘bindi’ which is a decoration wore between the
eyebrows worn by both married and single women.
Religion
The main religion of the Bhutanese refugees is Hinduism (estimated at 60%) followed by
other religions including Buddhism, Kirat and Christianity respectively. As far as marriage
goes, there is some cultural practice whereby young girls and young boys select their
partners and later consult their parents accordingly. In many cases parents do agree and
love marriages take place. Arranged marriage still exists although this is mainly practiced
among the pre-literate and elderly population. 4
A roadside temple inside Timai camp. Some temples are shared by both Hindus and Buddhists.
Caste System
The caste system is very prevalent and very complex among the Bhutanese refugees. It is
the same system followed in Nepal. There are a total of 64 castes, groups and parties
represented in the camps. The Hindus, who makeup the majority of the Bhutanese
refugees have four castes; namely the Brahmins, Chhetris, Vaishyas and Sudras. The
Brahmins are considered to be the top class followed by the Chhetris, Vaishyas and the
Sudras respectively. The Sudras are considered the lowest of all castes. The Kirats are a
different caste, which is also divided into sub-castes, the Rais and Limbus being the main
branches. Rais and Limbus belong to the Mongolian race and look physically different.
Settlement Considerations: Many question whether they will live near a Hindu temple.
Festival days are very important to Hindus. They are encouraged when they hear about
other communities of South Asian Hindus living in and worshipping in Canada. Working on
festival days could be challenging for some to accept.
Some families who are placed in housing near one another may not socialize due to caste
difference. Lower caste families tend to act passively around higher caste families. High
caste Brahmins will not eat or drink water that is prepared by anyone except themselves
or outside their own home.5
Many refugees question how they will be able to cremate their dead in Canada. They are
told that in countries where there are Hindus, adaptation has been made for religious
burial traditions (along with the fact that cremation is common for non-Hindus in North
America as well). What will be a concern is how the Bhutanese will be able to adequately
observe the thirteen-day mourning period if they are working. During the mourning period
special traditions are observed daily with visits from a religious leader; fasting is common.
Birth, Wedding and Death Rituals
Bhutanese refugees have increasingly accessed the hospital care provided in the camps
versus giving birth at home. Children are named in a special naming ceremony eleven days
after their birth.
Polygamy and child marriage are increasingly less prevalent but were initially common
among the Bhutanese refugee population.
Hindus practice cremation; Buddhists and Kirats bury their dead.
It is common for babies and small children to wear eye make-up, bangles and earrings. It is
mentioned in Canadian Orientation Abroad that Westerners would find small children wearing makeup unusual and possibly unsettling.
Communication: Moving one’s head from side to side can mean both yes and maybe. This
can cause confusion for Westerners. 6
Hygiene/Personal habits: Spitting in public is very common. Bhutanese refugees regularly
clear their throats and spit just about anywhere outside very frequently. Belching out
loud is also common.
Dress: The younger generation wear Western style clothing. Older women wear the
Nepalese style sari and men wear the daura suruwal. Bhutanese, like Nepalis, always take
their shoes off before entering one’s home.
Settlement Considerations: Cultural differences are addressed in Canadian Orientation
Abroad but will need reinforcing after arrival. It could pose a more difficult to
adjustment for the elderly population.
III. Refugee Camp Life
The seven refugee camps where the Bhutanese reside and their populations are:
Beldangi 1, 2, and Extension (52,756), Sanischare (21,320),Goldhap (9,632), Khudunabari
(13,180) and Timai (10,344). 7
Population
The female to male ratio is almost evenly divided at 49.3 % female and 50.7% male.
Children under 18 make up 35.5 % of the population (with 7.6% under the age of five).
Adults aged 60 years and older represent 6.6% of the population. (Group Profile and Proposal
Document, Bhutanese Refuges in Nepal for Group Referrals in the United States, Prepared by
UNHCR Nepal, Damak, Page 2.)
An interesting aspect of this population is the fact that the age 0-2 population is the same
as the age 65 and above population. This is quite unusual in refugee camp settings. Some
attribute this to family planning.IOM figures cite an average family size of three persons.
It should be taken into account that there are many large families as well as single cases,
which can affect the data.
Family Roles
The Bhutanese refugees are a patriarchal society, however women do play an active role in
the camps. For example there are female Camp Secretaries and it is common for some of
the younger generation to go outside the camps to attend universities. In the past, women
in the camps traditionally did not have opportunities to work outside the home. Women
are responsible for cooking, cleaning and chores. Children pay respect to elders. Spanking
or other use of physical discipline is common but not practiced by all Bhutanese.
Settlement Considerations: As with many refugee populations family roles can be greatly
altered by many factors including stress and culture shock. A woman getting employed
before her husband or earning more money could be a major stressor however this is
changing for the younger generation.
Housing, Water, Food and Sanitation
Together with its Dutch NGO partner Stichting Vluchteling, UNHCR funded the construction of
solar ovens so that the refugees no longer have to burn scarce wood for their cooking. 8
Food
Food in the camps is provided by the World Food Program (WFP).
The ‘Food Basket’ consists of the following daily amount: Rice 400 gram, Lentils 60 grams,
Vegetable Oil 25 grams, Sugar 20 grams, Salt 7.5 grams, Wheat/Corn/Soya blend 35
grams, Seasonal Vegetable 100 grams (UNHCR)
Meat and fish can be bought in the camps (with the exception of beef since Hindus do not
eat beef). Fish is caught in local rivers and treated with a preservative to keep in the
camps. There are a significant percentage of vegetarians among the population.
Bhutanese refugees generally eat two meals per day-lunch and dinner. Daily diet consists
of rice and lentils with ‘gundruk’, which is, dried vegetables. Bhutanese refugees eat with
their hands.
The camp residents generally have better access to water than most refugee camps in the
world, but people must still wait in line.
Settlement Considerations: Breakfast in the western sense is not a common meal but
rather an early lunch taken between 10 and 11 am. Daily school meal routines will be new to
families. This includes children eating breakfast before going off to school.
Using cutlery will be new for some, especially among the older generations. 9
It is advised to let families buy their own meat and eggs rather than stocking for them
before they arrive. For a detailed list of suggested items for refugees upon arrival in
Canada see Appendix I.
Housing
Refugee houses in Beldangi I. Houses are divided into ‘sectors’ in the camps. A sector head is
elcted to represent the residents on the Camp Management Committee.
Houses in the camps are constructed of bamboo and measure 6 by 3.5 meters. Extended
families live together and the average household size in the camps is six to seven people.
Partitions are made inside the huts for privacy. Flooring is dirt and swept daily with
handmade brooms.
Settlement Considerations: Refugees voice concern over not being able to have entire
extended families living in one apartment or house due to occupancy standards. They will
want to be able to host large gatherings to celebrate festivals, weddings, births and
mourning periods.
There will have been little to no exposure to western housing and appliances for many
families. Special attention should be given to using toilets, sinks, showers and ovens.
Littering is common and should be given attention in post arrival orientation upon arrival
along with proper disposal of waste. Recycling (in regards to waste disposal) will be a new
concept. 10
Toilet facilities are shared by two huts.
.
Health Care
Access and quality of health care in the camps is considered to be quite good in relation to
other refugee situations. Currently, all camps have medical facilities, health care staff and
a pharmacy. The Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA), an implementing partner
of UNHCR, manages health care in the camps. The doctors also provide services to the
local population who live close by the camps. Women have been given information and
access to family planning options.
IOM Medical staff has noted that many conditions that go unnoticed in other refugee
populations are diagnosed and treated because refugees have access to care. Unlike many
other refugee populations, they are forthcoming with their health issues including even
mental illnesses.
According to a report entitled ‘Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal’
conducted by Human Rights Watch, there are indications that the refugees suffer higher
rates of depression and anxiety than the local population and the rate of suicide is four
times that of the local population.
Settlement Considerations: Experience working with this population indicates they will be
pro-active about getting their health needs met in comparison to other refugee groups.
Refugees often cite access to quality health care as a compelling reason to apply for
resettlement. As with many refugee groups there could be refugees in need of
psychosocial support. 11
A Bhutanese refugee at the IOM Medical Clinic in Damak
Child and Youth Education
Students in an elementary classroom at Beldangi II Camp 12
Education is highly valued amongst the Bhutanese. The Bhutanese refugees have been an
important and valuable source of teachers for the country of Nepal. There have been
more than 150 teachers who have already departed for third country resettlement.
Education in the camps is free until grade 10. From 10
th
to 12
th
grade refugees must pay a
portion of the tuition as Caritas, a donor supported implementing partner of UNHCR, only
partially funds those grades. Many children from the camps go to boarding schools in
Nepal and India for 10
th
-12
th
grade. There are many schools in the Nepalese camps
starting from kindergarten and below the age of five through primary and secondary
school. Students are all provided with free textbooks.
Settlement Considerations: Students leaving for third country resettlement are given
School Leaving Certificates from their respective schools which can be useful to their
future school in Canada. The school system in the camps is what Westerners would
consider strict and hierarchical. Teaching methodology is old-fashioned and includes rote
memorization and recitation exercises. Many will be unfamiliar with the Western model of
expressing individual opinions and creative thinking in the classroom. Parents will also not
be used to the educational model in Canada that encourages family participation and
involvement in the learning process.
Many families who might have paid for their child’s grade 10-12 tuition are opting not to
because they believe they could be leaving for Canada, thereby causing a lag in education
for some at that grade level.
Adult Education and Vocational Training
Income generation projects such as weaving are run by the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum 13
There are comprehensive vocational training programs run throughout the seven camps by
Caritas and the Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum. Some of the vocational training
courses include computer and cell phone repair, carpentry, plumbing, construction, and
sandal making.
There has been a sharp increase in the number of refugees taking driving lessons in
preparation for third country resettlement.
An Adult English class, introduced after the prospect of third country resettlement
Settlement Considerations: Many of the vocational training programs may not train
participants to exact Canadian standards; however the fact that refugees have had
training and exposure in many skill-based fields should be seen as positive.
Language
Nepali is the primary and most common language spoken by the Bhutanese refugees.
Nepali has its own script. All children raised in the camps have been taught English along
with Dzongkha (Bhutanese national language). Among the generations not born in the
camps, men speak more English than women. The estimated rate of English speakers is
around 35% but this is higher among youth. Many elderly people will speak no English.
Settlement Considerations: There are highly educated former teachers and professionals
who could serve as interpreters and even caseworkers for agencies working with
Bhutanese refugees across Canada. 15
Appendix I
Suggested grocery list for families upon arrival:
Rice (white) in big quantities, lentils (all kinds, yellow, red, black), dried green peas (split
peas), ginger, garlic, onions, hot peppers, turnip greens, spinach, cabbage, okra, potatoes,
fresh coriander (cilantro), plain yogurt, whole milk, apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, salt,
sugar, peppercorns, turmeric and Indian curry powder, dried coriander, fennel, fenugreek,
oil (Soybean, corn or mustard), cookies, biscuits, cereal, loose tea.
Other items of importance for purchase will include bangles (important for women on
festival days, weddings) and also herbal powders used for making ‘thika’ for blessings.
These things can all be found at local South Asian shops.
Appendix II
Religious Holidays of Nepal followed by Bhutanese Refugees
 Dasain (Vijaya Dasami):- This is the biggest and most widely celebrated national
Hindu festival in Nepal, usually falling in early October. There are roughly two
weeks of celebrations. The main deity worshipped during Dasain is Goddess Durga.
 Tihar (Deepavali/Diwali):- This is another Hindu festival celebrated in Nepal and
as well as India. This is the festival of lights which falls in late October or early
November. The celebrations continue for five days.
 Mani Rimdu: – It is one of the most fascinating High Himalayan Buddhist festivals
observed every year, usually in November.
 Buddha Jayanti: – Celebrating the birth of Lord Buddha in the first week of May.
 Shiva Ratri: – Shivaratri or the night of Lord Shiva, is observed in March and
celebrates Lord Shiva. 16
References
The following sources were used in compiling the Cultural Profile:
Profile of the Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal: IOM Nairobi
Interviews with refugees conducted by IOM Nepal Canadian Orientation Abroad staff
with refugees in Beldangi I, II, Extension, Sanischare, Goldhap, Khudunabari and Timai
camps.
Interviews with staff of Caritas Nepal.
Bhutanese Refugees-The Story of a Forgotten People http://www.bhutaneserefugees.com
Group Profile and Proposal Document, Bhutanese Refuges in Nepal for Group Referrals in
the United States. Prepared by UNHCR Nepal, Damak,
Acknowledgements
IOM Nepal Canadian Orientation Abroad staff would like to thank all of its partners
working with the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal that shared their expertise for the
purposes of this Cultural Profile; UNHCR, Caritas Nepal, Lutheran World Federation, and
Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum.
Special thanks to all IOM staff in Nepal as well as IOM Senior Migrant Training Officer
Pindie Stephen and CO East Africa Coordinator Timnit Embaye for their contributions to
this Cultural Profile. 16
References
The following sources were used in compiling the Cultural Profile:
Profile of the Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal: IOM Nairobi
Interviews with refugees conducted by IOM Nepal Canadian Orientation Abroad staff
with refugees in Beldangi I, II, Extension, Sanischare, Goldhap, Khudunabari and Timai
camps.
Interviews with staff of Caritas Nepal.
Bhutanese Refugees-The Story of a Forgotten People http://www.bhutaneserefugees.com
Group Profile and Proposal Document, Bhutanese Refuges in Nepal for Group Referrals in
the United States. Prepared by UNHCR Nepal, Damak,
Acknowledgements
IOM Nepal Canadian Orientation Abroad staff would like to thank all of its partners
working with the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal that shared their expertise for the
purposes of this Cultural Profile; UNHCR, Caritas Nepal, Lutheran World Federation, and
Bhutanese Refugee Women’s Forum.
Special thanks to all IOM staff in Nepal as well as IOM Senior Migrant Training Officer
Pindie Stephen and CO East Africa Coordinator Timnit Embaye for their contributions to
this Cultural Profile.

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