HRDI News Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet


Bhutanese Hindus of Nepalese
origin – an estimated one sixth of
the population of Bhutan – were
arbitrarily stripped of their nationality
in the early 1990s and either were
forcibly expelled from the tiny
Himalayan kingdom or fled in
order to escape the enforcement
of restrictive citizenship laws and
other forms of institutionalised
The Bhutanese live
in seven camps in the Jhapa and
Morang districts in southeastern
Nepal, close to the Indian border,
frustrated by 15 fruitless rounds of
bilateral negotiations between the
governments of Nepal and Bhutan
and the failure of the international
community to secure durable
solutions to their displacement.
The Nepalese authorities have
consistently seen the refugees as
the responsibility of the Kingdom
of Bhutan and have pressed for
resettlement and repatriation as
a solution, not integration. Host
communities have expressed
concern over the refugees’ adverse
effects on local communities,
citing over-exploitation of water
and forest resources, damage of
roads by transport vehicles serving
the camps and competition for
employment as the refugees drive
down wages. There are reports
of increasing rates of crime and
sexual and gender-based violence.
The Bhutanese refugees are restricted
to the camps and prohibited from
engaging in income-generating
activities, even within the camp
confines. As a consequence, they are
entirely dependent on the support
of the international community for
their survival. With the passage of
time the support system in the camps
has come under increasing strain as
a result of donor fatigue. Budgetary
constraints facing UNHCR and
the World Food Programme have
necessitated cuts in the provision of
essential services, including food, fuel,
medical care and shelter materials.
Some services which used to be
extended to all refugees have now
been limited to the most vulnerable.
Human Rights Watch reports that
donor substitution of kerosene by
less expensive briquettes has led
to respiratory and other health
problems. Without kerosene the
camps now have no lighting at night,
with impacts on young people’s
studies. Women complain that
conditions in the camps, with large
numbers of people being forced to
live together in close confinement
in deteriorating circumstances, are
not conducive to creating a safe
environment for women and girls.
The Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
are thus trapped between their
forced dependency on international
assistance and the increasing
reluctance of the international
community to keep providing for
their needs. While the resettlement
offer has given hope to many, the
lack of clear information from the US
authorities or about the prospects for
other durable solutions – repatriation
to Bhutan or local integration in
Nepal – has resulted in increasing
anxiety and tension among the
refugees. The fate of the remaining
46,000 refugees and of up to 45,000
unregistered refugees in Nepal and
India remains unclear. Organisations
working in the camps have expressed
concern that the unofficially
announced resettlement offer may
attract new refugees, as well as local
Nepalese economic migrants.
Many refugees see resettlement as
tantamount to defeat and a means to
absolve the Bhutanese government of
its legal and moral responsibility to
make amends for the blatant violation
of their rights. Some opponents
of resettlement have threatened
refugees who speak out in favour of
resettlement, leaving many refugees
fearful of expressing their thoughts
on their future. Having been residents
of a refugee camp for up to 16 years,
many young people have never
known or cannot remember life in
Bhutan. Understandably, few have
much enthusiasm for repatriation.
The US offer has widened the
generation gap between parents
wishing to return and children
favouring resettlement.
A survey conducted in 2002 and 2003
found that 80% of the refugees chose
repatriation as their most desired
solution but in the context of bleak
prospects for repatriation and an offer
for facilitated resettlement in one of
the richest countries in the world, this
is likely to change. UNHCR estimates
that up to 80% of the population
will apply for resettlement.
There has been much speculation
about why the US announced in
October 2006 its willingness to resettle
refugees. Cynics have pointed to the
desire of the Bush Administration
to be seen to fulfil their refugee
resettlement quota by absorbing a
group of politically unthreatening
refugees. Unofficially it has been
announced that vulnerable persons
and families will be given highest
priority for resettlement but civil
society groups have voiced concern
that selection will be based on
language and educational skills,
leading to a brain drain in the
camps, especially among teachers
and health workers, and a further
deterioration in conditions for those
remaining. There are also fears
among the refugees that the offer
might be withdrawn at any time and
without warning. Refugees want
reassurance that a decision on their
the US offer to resettle 0,000 of the 10,000 Bhutanese
refugees in Nepal might offer a solution to this protracted
refugee situation. Resettlement may not be a perfect solution
but after 1 years of exile refugees may well choose it as the
best option available.
Resettlement for
Bhutanese refugees
by Christer Lænkholm0 BUlgARIA’S tREAtMENt Of ASylUM SEEkERS fMR 29
part to accept the offer of resettlement
does not extinguish their right to
return to Bhutan. Despite Bhutan’s
intransigence, refugees have not
given up hope that one day they will
be allowed to return home. Some
refugees now fear that they are being
asked to choose
between a future
in the US and their
right to return to
their own country.
It is essential that
the refugees’ right to
self-determination is
respected and that
they are empowered
to make wellinformed decisions
about the various
consequences of
all three durable
solution options.
They may be forced
to make some
pragmatic decisions.
At the moment
repatriation is not
a realistic prospect;
the human rights
situation of the
remaining ethnic
Nepalis in Bhutan
is highly precarious
despite announced
moves towards
in the Buddhist kingdom. In the
absence of a UNHCR presence
in Bhutan and given Bhutan’s
unwillingness to entertain the idea
that UNHCR could facilitate and
monitor voluntary repatriation of the
refugees, there can be no guarantees
of a secure legal status for any
returning ethnic Nepali refugees.
Thus for many refugees the ‘nextbest choice’ might be the best option
for their and their children’s future.
Realistically, a lot of the refugees
may end up getting low-skilled
and low-paid jobs and finding
difficulties integrating in the USA
– but they will be able to offer
their children the possibility of a
better education and job prospects
than would be possible if they stay
languishing in the refugee camps.
Christer Lænkholm ( is
a Relief Officer for DanChurchAid
(DCA DCA is a
long-time partner of the Lutheran
World Federation (LWF www. which has
worked with Bhutanese refugees in
Nepal since they arrived in 1991.
For further information, see the
April 2007 report of Human Rights
Watch, ‘The Need for Durable
Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees
in Nepal and India’ (http://hrw.
1. For the background to the Bhutanese displacement, see
FMR7 (;
FMR10 (
fmr10.18.pdf); FMR19 (
FMR19/FMR19update.pdf); and FMR25 (www.fmreview.
Alfred is a 16-year-old unaccompanied asylum seeker from Kosovo.
Frightened and confused, he looks
even younger. He has been detained
at the immigration detention centre in
Sofia since May 2007, held under the
same regime as adults. No officials
from the State Agency for Refugees
who come to the detention centre
to interview asylum seekers, have
visited him. On 14 September 2007,
I visit him for a second time, having
advised him the week before to
submit a second asylum application.
He says he cannot do so but I give
him a sheet of paper and ask him
to write the application in front of
me in his language, Albanian. He
writes it. I accompany Alfred to find
an official to witness receipt of his
asylum application. The official starts
shouting that Alfred has already
presented an asylum application.
When I try to explain that Bulgaria’s
Law on Asylum and Refugees obliges
state officials to receive asylum
applications and forward them for
consideration to the competent body,
she berates me for telling her how
to do her job. We are startled by her
Asylum seekers face appalling treatment at the immigration
detention centre in Bulgaria. treated as undocumented
immigrants, they are penalised and deported – in blatant
violation of Bulgarian law and Refugee Convention obligations.
Bulgaria’s treatment
of asylum seekers
by Valeria Ilareva
food to other
Timal camp,
Christer Laenkholm

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