BHUTAN

REFUGEE
C{}DING
PROJECT

BRIEF HISTORY

In 1865, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land to British India. Under British influence, a monarchy was set up in 1907; three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs, and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. This role was assumed by independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned to Bhutan the areas annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India's responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.

In March 2005, King Jigme Singye WANGCHUCK unveiled the government's draft constitution - which introduced major democratic reforms - and pledged to hold a national referendum for its approval. In December 2006, the King abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel WANGCHUCK. In early 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated their treaty, eliminating the clause that stated that Bhutan would be "guided by" India in conducting its foreign policy, although Thimphu continues to coordinate closely with New Delhi. Elections for seating the country's first parliament were completed in March 2008; the king ratified the country's first constitution in July 2008. Bhutan experienced a peaceful turnover of power following parliamentary elections in 2013, which routed the incumbent party. The disposition of some 23,000 Nepali Bhutanese refugees who fled or were forced out of Bhutan in the 1990s - housed in two UN refugee camps in Nepal - remains unresolved.

REFUGEE HISTORY

The great majority of Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people who in the late 1800s began immigrating to southern Bhutan—lowland, malarial-infested regions shunned by the Druk Buddhist majority—in search of farmland. There they became known asLhotsampas (“People of the South”).

Contact between the Druk in the north and the Lhotsampas in the south was limited, and over the years, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. Relations between the groups were for the most part conflict free. Under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958, the Lhotsampas enjoyed Bhutanese citizenship and were allowed to hold government jobs. 

In the 1980s, however, Bhutan’s king and the ruling Druk majority became increasingly worried about the rapidly growing Lhotsampa population. Concerned that the demographic shift could threaten the majority position and traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk, Bhutanese authorities adopted a series of policies known as Bhutanization, aimed at unifying the country under the Druk culture, religion, and language. The policies imposed the Druk dress code and customs on the Lhotsampas and prohibited the use of the Nepali language in schools. Nepali teachers were dismissed, and Nepali books were reportedly burned. The government also established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights. 

When the Lhotsampas began to organize politically to protest the policies, the authorities declared the activities subversive and unlawful. Some Lhotsampas became activists in the Bhutanese People’s Party, which called for Bhutan’s democratization. Smaller ethnic communities also began to advocate for a more democratic political system. 

In 1990, large-scale protests led to violent clashes with the police and army and to mass arrests. Ethnic Nepalis were targeted by the Bhutanese authorities, who destroyed the Nepalis’ property and arrested and tortured activists. Individuals were forced to sign so-called “voluntary migration certificates” before being expelled from the country. In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotsampas who could not prove they had been residents of Bhutan in 1958 had to leave. Tens of thousands fled to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal. 

RESETTLEMENT

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many Bhutanese refugees say they want to return to their homes in Bhutan. Despite this desire—and despite numerous high-level meetings between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal to resolve the refugee crisis over the past 16 years—Bhutan has not permitted a single refugee to return home.

Local integration has not been possible for political reasons. Moreover, Nepali government policy denies the refugees two basic rights that are prerequisites for local integration: freedom of movement and the right to work and earn a living. Only a small number of refugees have been able to acquire legal citizenship in Nepal. This occurs through marriage or descent.

With neither repatriation nor local integration a realistic possibility for the great majority of refugees, resettlement to a third country, such as the United States, has emerged as the only durable solution to the 16-year-old problem. The plan to resettle the refugees has been a divisive issue in the camps. While many welcome the chance to begin new lives in other countries, a group of politically active refugees opposes the resettlement plan, saying that repatriation to Bhutan is the only acceptable solution.

REFUGEE DEMOGRAPHICS

Almost 97% of the refugees are ethnic Nepalis. The non-Nepalis include the Sharchop, Drukpa, Urow, and Khenpga ethnic groups. Nearly all refugees speak Nepali as a first or second language. UNHCR estimates that about 35% of the population has a functional knowledge of English. 

Of the refugee population, 60% are Hindu, 27% are Buddhists, and about 10% are Kirat, an indigenous religion similar to animism. The percentage of Christians in each camp varies from 1% to 7%.

SOCIAL BACKGROUND

Like the Nepalis in Nepal, the Nepalis from Bhutan divide themselves into castes. Their caste system separates people into different social levels and influences the choice of marriage and other social relationships. Interestingly, the percentage of refugees with no education does not vary greatly by caste, probably because there is equal access to education in the camps. High-caste individuals are much more likely to have a postsecondary education than members of low castes, however.

In their occupational backgrounds, most refugees identify themselves as farmers or students. Other occupations include primary and secondary teachers, social workers, tailors, weavers, and housekeepers. Most refugees have not had opportunities to acquire job skills in the camps. Plans by UNHCR are underway to provide camp residents with vocational training.