It has been more than 30 years since the Bhutanese refugee crisis cropped up. At the time, the Bhutanese of Nepali origin known as Lhotsampas were expelled by the Bhutan government. They landed in eastern Nepal. At the initiative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they were settled in camps in Jhapa and Morang districts.
Nepal and Bhutan have held as many as 15 rounds of talks for the repatriation of the refugees but to no avail. In March 2001, the refugees were verified for the first time to set the stage for the repatriation of genuine ones. The verification raised hopes that the repatriation would begin within one year. But the process lingered for a long time contrary to expectations. In the meantime, the Bhutanese verification team was allegedly attacked in 2003, further delaying the repatriation process. In fact, Bhutan was dillydallying in taking the refugees back. Its intention was not to take back the refugees at all.
The Lhotsampas had been living in southern Bhutan since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were being discriminated against at the hands of the Bhutan government. That is why they protested, demanding human rights and democracy. The Bhutan government feared lest they should take over the government. It also considered a Greater Nepal movement emerging from Darjeeling, Kalimpong and West Bengal Nepali patriotism. The Bhutan government considered them illegal immigrants. So it hatched a scheme to evict them at any cost.
In 1980, the Bhutan government sought to preserve cultural identity that referred to the culture of northern Bhutanese ethnic groups. The Lhotsampas were a southern ethnic group. The Bhutan government adopted a repressive policy and imposed Driglam Namzha (Bhutanese dress and official etiquette codes) and Dzongkha (Bhutan’s national language) on the Lhotsampas. The Nepali subject was discontinued in educational institutions. The Bhutan government was of the opinion that teaching of Nepali in schools had stoked illegal immigration into southern Bhutan.
Bhutan held the first census in 1988. The Bhutan government placed its people in different categories such as genuine Bhutanese and non-nationals or migrants and illegal settlers. On the basis of the Citizenship Act, 1985 and imposing the Citizenship Act, 1958 on them, the Lhotsampas were asked to furnish proof of residence since before 1958. (The Bhutanese population of Nepali provenance got Bhutanese citizenship in 1958, so the year 1958 was taken as the cut-off year.) Those not able to furnish proof accordingly were declared illegal immigrants. So in a move described as ethnic cleansing, the Lhotsampas were systematically forced to leave Bhutan in the 1990s.
As described above, the refugee crisis could not be resolved by Nepal and Bhutan. So the UNHCR and its partners launched a third-country resettlement plan in 2007. And many countries, including the United States, showed interest in receiving the refugees as they would not pose a security threat to them. The refugees have since been resettled in the USA, Canada, the UK, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. The USA has hosted the majority of the refugees. As many as 113,500 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in these countries till now.
The resettlement process lasted from 2008 till 2016. But there are still Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal. There are over 6,000 refugees in Beldangi and Sanischare camps. After the resettlement process came to a halt, the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies like the World Food Programme stopped supporting the refugees. Now, the Nepal government and national and international organisations are supporting the refugees. Nepal is not a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. So the country is not bound to host the refugees. However, the country has been hosting not only Bhutanese refugees but also Tibetan refugees on humanitarian grounds.
The remaining Bhutanese refugees are willing to go back to Bhutan. They have been demanding that the Nepal government make arrangements for their safe repatriation to Bhutan. But there is the rub. The properties of the Lhotsampas have been usurped by the Ngalop ethnic groups. They are living in the houses that once belonged to the Lhotsampas. Even if they are repatriated to Bhutan, they may not be allowed to live safely; they may have to face security challenges.
The Nepal government has issued refugee ID cards to the refugees. But the government has no plan to assimilate them into the citizenry of the country. Neither will the government assimilate Tibetan refugees. Rather, the government wants to resettle them in third countries. In July 2019, the then government led by KP Sharma Oli constituted a taskforce to resolve the refugee problem. The taskforce made a study and submitted its report to the government. The report contains the names of those refugees who are willing to resettle in third countries. However, the report has not been made public yet.
In the meantime, a scam has been exposed. Some unscrupulous people got the report somehow and added as many as 875 fake refugees to the list of those willing to resettle in third countries. It is reported that they have collected from Rs. 1-5 million from each of them, promising that they will be sent to the USA. The matter is under police investigation now. As per the preliminary investigation, an amount of Rs. 400 million has been collected so far. As there is room for manipulation of the list of refugees, the government should take the initiative in settling the refugee crisis once and for all.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)