Bhutanese Refugees

Bhutanese Refugees

Issue Background Information

Bhutanese refugees represent the highest per capita refugee population in the world and yet their story of suffering and of waiting remains largely unheard in the international community. Many people still describe Bhutan as a “Shangri-La” or a “Garden of Eden”, overlooking the mystery of how this supposedly peaceful nation forcibly expelled approximately one-sixth (1/6) of its total population. After many years of repressive policies and human rights violations against the ethnic Nepalese population living in the southern region of the country, in the early 1990s the Bhutanese government expelled approximately 100,000 Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese ethnicity from the country who still languish in the camps.

The landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by Tibet in the north and by India to the east, west and south. Approximately two-thirds (2/3) of the population is composed of Buddhists with cultural traditions similar to Tibet. The Buddhist majority comprises two principal ethnic and linguistic groups: the Ngalongs of western Bhutan and the Sharchops of eastern Bhutan. The remaining third of the population, ethnic Nepalis, most of who are Hindus, live in the country’s southern districts.

As with any country, the history and current affairs of Bhutan is woven from complex factors involving religion, political structure, culture, ethnicity, and outside influences. Bhutan’s historical period is said to begin in 747 A.D., when a religious leader (Guru Padma Sambhana) came from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country. In the early 1600s, small principalities in present day Bhutan were unified under the central leadership of a Buddhist monk who later became the theocratic ruler of Bhutan. British influence played a role in Bhutanese affairs from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. The British never colonized Bhutan, but various political and economic conflicts during the time of British influence resulted in the British helping to establish the hereditary monarchy that rules Bhutan today. The Wangchuck dynasty was established in 1907. The present ruler is King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk.

Politically, Bhutan is a monarchy without a constitution or bill of rights. The government significantly restricts the rights of the Kingdom’s citizens. The King exercises strong, active and direct power over the government. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. The government discourages political parties, and none operates legally. The judicial system is under the control of the King. The present-day conflict in Bhutan arose during the monarchy’s efforts in the mid-1980s to significantly restrict the rights of the ethnic Nepalese residents of the country, passing legislation requiring them to adopt the culture, language and religion of the majority. The government stepped up it efforts by passing legislation requiring ethnic Nepalese to prove their Bhutanese citizenship, using requirements that were difficult, if not impossible to fulfill. The restrictions on the rights of ethnic Nepalese resulted in political protests and led to ethnic conflict and repression of ethnic Nepalese in southern districts during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese left Bhutan in 1991-92, many forcibly expelled. The government utilized tools of terror to facilitate the process, including illegal detention, harassment, torture and rape. Approximately 91,000 ethnic Nepalese remain in refugee camps in Nepal and upwards of 15,000 reside outside the camps in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The Government maintains that many of those in the camps were never citizens of Bhutan, and therefore they do not have the right to return.

There are two main theories as to root cause of the conflict. One is cultural friction. As the number of ethnic Nepalese steadily increased, the Bhutanese government may have feared that their Buddhism-based culture was slowly being overtaken by Hindu traditions and cultural practices of the ethnic Nepalese. Another school of thought points to the political origins of the conflict. This line of thinking espouses that the Bhutanese elite felt that their absolute power was being corroded by increasing numbers of ethnic Nepalese entering high level positions in government and in demonstrations being organized calling for democracy in Bhutan.

Nonetheless, the Bhutanese monarchy maintains that most of those expelled from the country were illegal immigrants.

In December 2000, both the governments of Bhutan and Nepal agreed on terms for refugee verification. Each side chose five members to form the Joint Verification Team which would review each refugee’s claims to Bhutanese citizenship.

The verification of refugees in the Khudunabari camp ended in late 2001. When the Joint Verification Team (JVT) arrived in the camps more than a year after the completion of the verification process to announce the results, refugees were unhappy with the JVT’s disregard of their concerns. One child of 18 months was categorized as a terrorist. Families were divided. A scuffle ensued and the Bhutanese members of the JVT deserted. Since then, the process has been in deadlock.

The results of the verification of this single camp were equally distressing: only 2.4 % of the refugees were listed in Category 1 (Forcefully Evicted), the percentage of refugees that Bhutan is willing to take back. The two governments have not yet reached an agreement on the fate of the remaining refugees. The verification exercise itself has come to a standstill.

In the meantime, foreign governments have been hinting at an offer for resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees in western countries. The United States has identified the Bhutanese refugees as a group under consideration for resettlement in the U.S. However, the Nepalese government and the self-appointed refugee leaders have balked at the suggestion. Many refugee leaders indicate that the double standards of western governments, especially European governments, seems to be doing little to help solve the problem. On the one hand, European governments seem to be pressurizing the government of Bhutan to solve the refugee problem. On the other, they continue to provide massive developmental aid to the Bhutanese government which shows a blatant disregard for the violation of human rights of its own people. India, the most crucial factor in the resolution of the crisis, continues to turn a blind eye to the plight of the refugees.

Educated refugees continue to desert the camps and work illegally at great risk in Nepal and India as laborers. The educational and health facilities in the camps have been dwindling. Mental illness, including depression, hopelessness and anxiety disorder, has increased. Social evils like gangs, drugs, prostitution and trafficking have made inroads into the refugee community. A few youths from the refugee camps are said to have joined the Nepalese Maoists guerillas. This perhaps is an indication of things to come if the problem lingers on. The refugee organizations seem to be as disorganized as ever, with one coalition giving place to a new one every few years.

Inside Bhutan and internationally the Bhutanese government has successfully marketed the concept of “Gross National Happiness.” The King has announced that he will hold democratic elections in 2008. The drafting of a constitution has almost come to completion. These attempts at political reform that have kept the refugees out of the equation have succeeded in taking the attention away from the refugee problem. This is taking place in the shadow of the Maoist conflict in Nepal and that too is affecting refugees and their ability to seek resolution to their situation.

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