An estimated 650,000 Nepali-speaking people live mainly in the southern belt of Bhutan and are relatively recent immigrants to the area. They comprise a combination of caste and ethnic groups, including Bahun, Chhetri, Gurung, Limbu, Newar, Rai and Tamang. Effectively, however, they form a single community bound together by the common Nepali tongue and the Hindu religion. It is this distinctiveness which makes them a target of discrimination and exclusion by the Bhutanese government.
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 and the large majority of them Nepali-speakers, 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 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people and was applied in an arbitrary 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 to identify illegal immigrants and Bhutanese nationals, which started in 1988, gave rise to fears that those not recognized as Bhutanese nationals would be forced to leave the country. These fears were borne out by the arbitrary 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 land with little or no compensation, while those identified as ‘anti-nationals' and their families were harassed, imprisoned and tortured.
Forced eviction has been the main form of discrimination against, and repression and exclusion of, Nepali-speakers. Other more subtle mechanisms have also been 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 has aroused fears that the government intends 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 males) and kira (for women) – that was to be worn during such activities as schooling and visiting government and local administrative offices and monasteries. The integration policy also involves 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 arbitrary 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 eviction 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 excelled 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 in one of the several camps. According to this screening process, less than 3 per cent of the residents were to be recognised as genuine refugee and allowed the right to repatriate within Bhutan with full citizenship rights. The enforcement of such an agreement was not only hugely unfair, it was unacceptable to the refugees as it would render the vast majority as Stateless persons.
There has no resolution to the 106,000 Bhutanese Nepali-speaking refugees currently languishing in Nepal. The physical situation of these refugees became more precarious during 2005-2006, with the uncertainty of any continued support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Furthermore there have also been growing numbers of reports of sexual exploitation of Refugee women currently based in Nepal. During the political violence and insurrection in Nepal during 2005, there are reports of substantial violations and abuses conducted both by the Nepali security services as well as the Maoists rebels.