Bhutanese Refugees Past and Present: A look at where they are today

Published on Jan 01 2012 // Commentary
By Elizabeth Hebert

If you do a quick Google search about Bhutan, you may quickly discover that it has been rated as one of the world’s happiest countries. In 2006 they were chosen as the happiest Asian country and the 8th happiest country worldwide. Business Week notes, “The small Asian nation of Bhutan ranks eighth in the world, despite relatively low life expectancy, a literacy rate of just 47%, and a very low GDP per capita. Why? Researchers credit an unusually strong sense of national identity.”

However, this happiness and strong sense of national identity does not include the thousands of Bhutanese who were imprisoned, tortured, or forced to flee and who have been living in refugee camps in Nepal. Forced to leave Bhutan in the 1980s-1990s, groups of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees have been living in limbo with uncertain futures.

Bhutan has many different ethnic groups, including the Lhotshampa, people of Nepali origin whose ancestors came to Bhutan in the 1890s as government contracts to cultivate Southern Bhutan farmland. The Lhotshampa stayed in Southern Bhutan and were given citizenship in 1958, which was later revoked in the 1980s under the guise that they were participating in anti-national movements. Tens of thousands of Southern Bhutanese were imprisoned, tortured, or fled the country. Some of them were arbitrarily expelled, while others fled in order to escape imprisonment. (See HRW “Last Hope, The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India” May 2007)

Although many fled to India, they were not allowed to set up permanent camps and therefore either stayed without documentation in India or moved to East Nepal, where the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees (UNHCR) established seven refugee camps. It is estimated that nearly 105,000 Bhutanese refugees were living in these camps in Nepal, which is approximately 1/6 of Bhutan’s actual population. (See “Bhutanese Refugees – A Story of Forgotten People”)

Bhutanese Refugee Journey: From a Refugee Camp in Nepal to Freedom in Seattle

As of 2008, nearly half of these hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled to third countries, including the United States, Australia, Britain, and other European countries. Resettlement to a third country is considered to be one of three viable solutions for refugees, the other two being returning to their country of origin or settling in their second country (i.e. Nepal and India). In the beginning of 2011, the United States had resettled nearly 35,000 Bhutanese refugees and promised to resettle up to 60,000. However, nearly 71,000 Bhutanese are still awaiting resettlement in the camps in Nepal.

Although there has been inter-camp strife about whether refugees should resettle in a third country or wait for repatriation, many Bhutanese easily chose to resettle in hopes of a better future for their children and families. However, as Human Rights Watch points out, it is not everyone’s goal. “But it’s not everyone’s dream. For many still in the camps – for older refugees, in particular, who remember their lives in Bhutan and still mourn their losses – watching their compatriots leave has been a bitter experience. About 17,000 of the remaining refugees have not sought third country resettlement, many still holding out for repatriation.”

The fact that the United States and other countries have so generously welcomed the Bhutanese into their countries is indeed admirable. However, that should not overshadow the fact that the Bhutanese, wherever they are, have the right to return to their homeland.

Amnesty International: Bhutan Human Rights
Bhutanese Refugees: The Story of a Forgotten People
Business Week: The Happiest Countries
Human Rights Watch: Last Hope
Human Rights Watch: For Bhutan’s Refugee, There is No Place Like Home

(Elizabeth Hebert, M.A. Conflict and Dispute Resolution, University of Oregon)