Face­less ci­ti­zens

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.

Southasia - - REGION BHUTAN - By Fa­tima Si­raj

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.

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