The citizenship of almost 80,000 Lhotshampas, who are the Nepali-speaking people of southern Bhutan, has been revoked and these stateless citizens have been forced to take refuge in different countries around the world.
There are approximately 80,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Denmark, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the United States – countries that have come together to form a Core Working Group (CWG) to encourage a solution to Bhutan’s refugee crisis. The roots of the crisis date back to the late 1980s when the Lhotshampas – Bhutanese of Nepali origin from the southern region of the country – were regarded by the monarchs as a threat to the political order.
During the late nineteenth century, the then rulers of the kingdom invited a large number of Nepali-speaking people to settle in the uninhabited areas of southern Bhutan under a plan to use those areas for cultivation. Very soon, the region became the nation’s main supplier of food, as a result of the hard work of the Nepalese who made this mountainous land arable. There were around 60,000 Nepalese in Bhutan by 1930. Continued immigration led to an increase in their population. It is a fact though that these migrants had very little security before the 1958 Citizenship Act that granted them full citizenship.
The economic importance of the south grew in 1961 when major hydro-electric power projects were established as part of nationwide development and modernization programs. However, the Lhotshampas did not own much land and did not move up north beyond a certain latitude. As a result, there was minimal interaction between the people of northern and southern Bhutan. It was with the development of education and social services in the late twentieth century that some Lhotshampas rose up the social ladder and began occupying influential positions in the bureaucracy.
In the 1980s, the King of Bhutan and the ruling Druk Buddhist majority became wary of the fast-growing ethnic Nepalese population. In 1958 a new citizenship act was passed that required every member of the Lhotshampa community to provide documentary evidence of their legal residence in the country or else risk being stripped of their nationality. The authorities also embarked on a strict Bhutanization campaign, aimed at unifying the nation under the Druk language and culture.
In 1989, all citizens were required by law to dress in the traditional costume worn in the north and the Nepali language was removed from school curriculum. The Lhotshampas responded to this blatant repression by staging public demonstrations and were labeled as ‘anti-nationals’ by the government. Thousands of them were imprisoned for several months and over 2000 were tortured. Very few were formally charged or given a proper trial. Those who were eventually released found that their homes had been destroyed and their families had fled from the kingdom to Nepal.
The government continued its repressive measures against the Lhotshampas during 1991 and 1992 and many were forced to sign ‘voluntary migration’ certificates. As the citizenship of more and more people was revoked, Nepal saw an influx of refugees at an alarming rate of up to 600 per day in the mid-1992. This prompted the government of Nepal to approach the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank for help. By the mid2000s more than 100,000 refugees were living in UNHCR camps set up in eastern Nepal. As refugees, they were not granted the right to work and were completely dependent on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.
Over the last two decades, more than 15 rounds of talks have been held between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan but no comprehensive solution has been reached, with Bhutan resisting Nepal’s calls for international engagement in the talks. However, in December 2000, the governments of both countries agreed on the terms of the verification process for refugees. Each side selected five representatives to form a Joint Verification Team (JVT), which would go over each refugee’s claim to Bhutanese citizenship.
The verification of refugees in the Khudunabari camp ended in late 2001.
When the Joint Verification Team arrived at the camps, more than a year after the completion of the process to announce the results, the outcome was distressing. Only 2.4 percent of the refugees were listed in Category 1 (Forcefully Evicted) – the refugees Bhutan was willing to take back. With the governments of Nepal and Bhutan unable to reach an agreement on the fate of the remaining refugees, the verification exercise came to a standstill.
Due to the lack of opportunities for repatriation of these refugees, the CWG and the government of Nepal collaborated in 2007 and agreed to provide third-party resettlement options to the refugees who had lost their homes, lands and livelihoods. As of June 2013, 80,000 refugees have been resettled, with many of them living in the United States in areas like Atlanta, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.
The refugees look forward to settling down and starting their lives afresh. "We spent more than 20 years in the camp but Bhutan didn't show any interest in repatriation so I think resettlement is the best option," said Sher Bahadur Khadka, who moved to the United States in April 2013. "My wife and I will try to get jobs here. I would also like to study. I hope to manage time both for my work and education."
As for the Lhotshampas still living in Bhutan, they continue to face repression and even persecution. Since 1991, they have been required to obtain a ‘no-objection certificate’ to state that neither they nor their relatives have any role in the democracy movement and other ‘antinational’ activities. This certificate is very difficult to obtain, but is required in order to gain access to schools and other government services, as well as to work with the government or get a business license.
Annual census activities in the south continue to reclassify the Southern Bhutanese into different categories, from F1 (full Bhutanese) to F7 (non-Bhutanese), including placing members of the same family in different categories.