More than 250,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese live mainly in the southern lowlands of Bhutan. Also known as Lhotshampas (‘people of the south’), they belong to a multiplicity of caste and ethnic groups, including Bahun, Chhetri, Gurung, Limbu, Newar, Rai, and Tamang. They form a community bound together by the common Nepali language and ethnic descent, and in most cases also the Hindu religion.
Nepali-speaking people began migrating into Bhutan in significant numbers in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually accounting for at least a third of the country’s population. However, in early 1996 nearly 100,000 people from Bhutan – nearly one-sixth of the total population of Bhutan – were residing in refugee camps in Nepal. This forcible exclusion took place as a result of a series of discriminatory measures pursued by the Bhutanese government beginning in the 1980s.
A number of efforts, principally the 1958 and 1977 legislation to regularize citizenship, culminated in the 1985 Citizenship Act. The act contained provisions to the detriment of Lhotshampas and was applied in a discriminatory manner. It was used to exclude from citizenship many people who were not members of the dominant ethnic group, as well as those who opposed government policy by peaceful means.
A census operation, beginning in 1988 and applied strictly only in the south of the country, divided the population into categories of officially recognised citizens and non-citizens, giving rise to fears that those not recognized as Bhutanese nationals would be forced to leave the country. These fears were borne out by the fashion in which the census was conducted, and by the way opposition to government policy among sections of the southern Bhutanese population was suppressed by government forces. After 1988 a process of systematic discrimination began, with people being required to provide written proof of residency in Bhutan in 1958. In 1992 ‘illegal’ families were forced to sign ‘voluntary leaving certificates’ and evicted from their land with little or no compensation, while those identified as ‘anti-nationals’ and their families were harassed, imprisoned and tortured.
Forced eviction was the main form of discrimination against, and repression and exclusion of, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. Other more subtle mechanisms were also adopted, for example the policy of national integration on the basis of northern Bhutanese traditions and culture, decreed by King Jigme Singye in January 1989. This policy aroused fears of the government’s intent to erase Nepali culture in Bhutan by requiring the whole population to adopt distinctive northern Bhutanese practices.
The cultural code imposed a form of dress – the traditional gho (for men) and kira (for women) – that was to be worn during such activities as attending school, and visiting government and local administrative offices and monasteries. The integration policy also involved a code of conduct stipulating how people should behave on certain occasions. Failure to comply with the code has been declared punishable with imprisonment or a fine. The royal decree also included a halt to the teaching of the Nepali language.
As a result of the discriminatory stance of the government, the implementation of the citizenship legislation, and the intimidation and harassment of Nepali-speakers, a large outflow of refugees to Nepal began in mid-1991. Previously, only about 10,000 people had left Bhutan, but in June 1991 a campaign of forced evictions began. By December 1991 a mass exodus had built up, continuing until late 1992. Although the flow of refugees diminished thereafter, Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees in Nepal numbered at least 85,000 by mid-1993. Health-related problems emerged in the refugee camps, stemming from malnutrition, poor sanitation and disease. In June 2003 – by which time the refugee population had exceeded the 100,000 mark – the governments of Bhutan and Nepal announced the outcome of a pilot screening process in order to decide upon the refugee status of those sheltering in one of the several camps. According to this screening process, less than three per cent of the residents were to be recognized as genuine refugees and allowed the right to repatriate to Bhutan with full citizenship rights. The enforcement of such an agreement promised to be hugely unjust and was considered unacceptable to the refugees as it would render the vast majority as stateless persons.
There was no resolution to the situation facing Lhotshampa refugees in Nepal in the early 2000s and the physical conditions they experienced became more precarious during 2005-2006, with the uncertainty of any continued support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). During a surge in political violence and insurrection in Nepal in 2005, there were reports of substantial violations and abuses, including sexual violence against refugee women, conducted both by the Nepali security services as well as Maoist rebels.
In 2007 the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched a programme aiming to resettle over 100,000 Lhotshampa refugees from Nepal to third countries such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the US. In 2010 there were still an estimated 89,000 Lhotshampa refugees living in Nepal who did not have citizenship in any country and were thereby rendered stateless.
In the 2008 national elections marking Bhutan’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy, Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan faced restrictions on their political activities. The Election Commission restricted the use of languages in the electoral process other than Dzongkha, the country’s only official language, which is not well understood by most Nepali-speakers. Lhotshampas were in many cases turned away from voting because they were considered ‘non-nationals’. In the public domain, from the local to national level, elections have not produced candidates willing to address issues surrounding discrimination and the legacy of ethnic cleansing, and even the subject of the mass expulsion of Lhotshampas is not discussed in Bhutanese political society.
As of the beginning of 2018, there are less than 10,000 Lhotshampa refugees living in eastern Nepal, particularly Jhapa and Morang districts, waiting for resettlement or repatriation. Nepal called on UNHCR to persuade Bhutan to accept the the voluntary repatriation of those remaining refugees who would be left in Nepal after the conclusion of the third-country resettlement programme. Although the United States hosts the large majority of the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees resettled through the UNHCR-IOM programme, due to immigration restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, migration to the US has been suspended.
Among those who have not been resettled in third countries and are awaiting resettlement or repatriation, some 2,000 wish to return to Bhutan. However, there is a generational gap apparent in attitudes towards resettlement to third countries: while younger refugees tend to favour a new life in Europe or North America, elderly family members are largely opposed to starting anew elsewhere. Some younger refugees are reluctant to leave behind their elderly family members and many others are in mixed-marriages, mostly with Nepalis, and are therefore disinclined to leave. Some are disqualified for resettlement due to individual circumstances and a few others are opposed to resettlement since they view it as foreclosing any prospect of restoring their rights as Bhutanese citizens.
On Human Rights Day, 10 December 2018, a group of 200 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees staged a protest in one of the camps, demanding repatriation. Amongst their pressing concerns was the recent announcement by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that it was planning to phase out its food assistance operation for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, beginning in January 2019. It would be issuing a ‘close-out’ package of funds for three to six months, prioritising vulnerable groups among the 6,500 remaining refugees.