Different Dimensions of Bhutanese Refugee Problem: Its Implications and Lasting Solutions

|  K.P. Sharma Oli  |

1.    Real Situation of the Problem

Being forcible evicted from Bhutan via India to Nepal, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees have been languishing a deplorable life in seven different camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal. Although United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided them with basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter, they are presently living a troubled life in the camps, deprived of human rights, with bitter experiences and memories of murder, robbery, torture, rape and displacement imposed upon them by the autocratic Government of Bhutan. They want to return to their motherland, but the Government of Bhutan is not in favor of allowing them to return. So, they are unable to go back their homeland.

The refugees have not only been exiled and deprived of their ancestral land, houses and other properties but also compelled to stay away from their kith and kin. They are denied citizenship rights and freedom. Some of them have died because of epidemics and some others have lost their lives because of trees falling on them. Many are leading a tormented life after being raped. Now, they are facing further problem with the reduction of assistance by UNHCR.

The refugee crisis has become a real problem for Nepal. The presence of refugees has given rise to economic, social, cultural, environment and many more other problems in Nepal. As a result, Nepal wants a very prompt solution to the refugee issue. That is why, Nepal accepted irrational and illogical arguments of Bhutan up to the 15th round of formal bilateral talks and many other informal dialogues. Though Nepal might not have been very cautions in bilateral talks, it always wished to reach a consensus and conclusion to find a permanent solution to the problem. But the Nepalese endeavors have turned out to be futile. With the passage of time, several rounds of talks were held, but the situation remained unchanged with an impending gap in finding the solution.

Therefore, realizing the past follies and illusions, and being more serious than before with the common national policy (which is now eventually agreed), Nepal should move ahead with a firm determination to implement its policy. Now there should not be any lapse and delay.
2.    What is the Cause of the Problem?

Bhutan has virtually remained aloof from the international community in the absence of democracy, human rights and good governance. In around 1990, the world was highly influenced by the people"s movement for democracy and human rights. Nepal, which was fighting against the tyrannical rule, was able to restore democracy. It was natural to have that influence in Bhutan as well. As a result, the Bhutanese people started to raise their voice against the dictatorial regime. This appeared to be a threat to monarchy and tyrannical rule in Bhutan. Then, the Bhutanese Government intensified its racial and cultural discrimination and oppression. Citizens were allowed to exercise only limited rights, made non-Nepali culture, tradition, dress and language compulsory, exerted great pressure on the citizens to give up their religion, culture and art. Had people hardly begun to protest against such an oppression, Bhutanese rulers, like Hitler, had adopted the policy of ethnic cleansing- a crime against humanity. As aware citizens, the Nepali speaking Bhutanese could not bear the tyrannical suppression, torture and suffering. They had gone against the tyrannical rule. And the Bhutanese Government compelled them to leave Bhutan for Nepal via India. Many citizens were forced to sign the voluntary migration form as well.

The number of population in Bhutan stands only at about 600,000-700,000. Nepali speaking people accounted for one-third of the total population. This would have a significant impact on the politics of Bhutan, which the Druk regime took it as a threat. To get rid of this, half of the Nepali speaking people were suppressed and forced to abandon their homeland. The Bhutanese government"s anti- humanity activities such as deception, treachery and conspiracy and its foul plans were not known to the international community. But the international community was not alert about it and did not show any interest to prevent such activities, as a result of which the refugee problem took a serious hold.

3.    Whose Problem is the Bhutanese Refugee Issue?

In reality, the Bhutanese refugee problem is the problem between the Government of Bhutan and its citizens. We need to understand the problem properly. Respecting human sentiments, thoughts and behaviors, international laws, treaties, terms and conditions are the responsibilities of a civilized and well-cultured society, which Nepal has upheld. UNHCR and many other organizations, too, are upholding these values.

4.    How did this Problem Befall on Nepal?

Speaking clearly, there is no cause for Nepal to be affected and to be engaged with Bhutanese refugee problem. Bhutan is neither geographically connected with Nepal nor the Druk Kingdom is Nepal"s immediate neighbor. Generally, people take shelter in an immediate safe place. This is general phenomenon of migration. Having analyzed this way, Bhutanese refugees should have taken refuge in India itself. There was no reason for them to enter. Nepal at that time, as there was no violence and insecurity in India. According to the international laws, moral duty and on the basis of
responsibility, the task of giving asylum and managing camps should have been carried out by India. But by violating and neglecting basic values of refugees, India was hell bent on sending them to Nepal. Nepal also did not protest against such burden. Whatever it be, Nepal, on humanitarian ground and being an intimate friend of Bhutan, let refugees enter into it.

5.    Management of Refugees" Ration and Other Facilities

Since time immemorial, Bhutanese refugees while in Bhutan were economic, social, cultural, linguistic, religious and political victims and led a sorrowful life. Besides these, the Government of Bhutan adopted an inhumane and cruel policy of ethic cleansing and heightened the crisis after evicting its own citizens. Hundreds of children, old people, disabled and handicapped were dying due to starvation and diseases after they were exiled. At such a critical hour, local people voluntarily managed and helped the refugees for their ration, medicines and shelter. Along with them, humanitarian organizations like Red Cross and other institutions actively extended their services to the refugees to manage their food, shelter and clothing. The service to mankind has been rendered even today. The refugees, who are denied dignified repatriation, are psychologically desperate, restless and anguished. The Government of Bhutan misinterpreted the humanitarian aid of UNHCR and misinformed the outside world as "UNHCR offers money to the refugees". This type of act on the part of Bhutan is very inhumane. Bhutan views that refugees should not get even food and shelter and it is envious about the assistance. What a great and clear example of emptiness of human sentiments !

6.    Impact of Refugees Problem on Nepal

Nepal is highly affected by the refugee problem. The country is facing social, economic and environmental problems due to refugees. Because of this situation, the Nepalese people (basically at the local level) have undergone psychological and mental pressure. This step on the part of the Government of Bhutan has created a severe impact on the sentiments of Nepal. There is massive degradation of environment due to deforestation at the periphery of the refugee camps, especially in Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal. Social and cultural problems like robbery, prostitution and other crimes have taken place. The problem can also be observed in terms of unemployment. Increasing conflicts at the local levels, economic and human investment of Nepal for the management and protection of refugees are other few effects of the problem on the country. Besides, slackening of Nepal"s age-old relationship with Bhutan is another impact of the problem. The aforementioned problems have given rise to temporary, mid-term and long-term effects.

7.    Illusion that Bhutan Wants to Create

Bhutan has been working for the continuation of its autocratic rule making its one-third population stateless and refugees. Compelling its citizens to be exiled, Bhutan is actively striving for and engaged in forwarding illogical arguments and illusions to heighten the refugee crisis. Bhutan is also dissemination its misinterpretation to the world community that Nepali speaking people are not
Bhutanese; they are all Nepalese and are against Bhutan and its culture, and are trying to destroy the Shangri-La totally. Apart from this, the Government of Bhutan has also argued that there are no Bhutanese refugees in Nepal; the people living in the refugee camps are hired by Nepal from different places and is distributing financial aid from UNHCR and UN to those "artificial" refugees. Similarly, Bhutan has also stated that there are no refugees in the camps; they are all warring terrorists; they are not Bhutanese; they are Nepali speaking people and many  are  voluntary migrants or criminals, who have been absconding to escape punishment. Bhutan projects itself as a nation very willing to help resolve the crisis and it charges Nepal for not showing interest to resolve the problem. The Druk Kingdom is also very active I its efforts to dissuade the third party intervention like UNHCR, stating it to be a bilateral problem between Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan is liberal on its way of democratization, the King is abdication the throne. These are illusion that Bhutan is crating to prolong the process of solution to refugee crisis. Finally, What Bhutan should understand is that it cannot give continuity to its autocratic rule by suppressing its people through the adoption of the policy of ethnic cleansing and making them stateless. Its future is uncertain. Bhutanese citizens (refugees) should be repatriated with dignity and they should be allowed to lead their lives with safety in Bhutan.

8.    Lapses

In regards to matters of refugee problem, some serious lapses have been observed. The role of India, in this context, is especially very important. India, which has helped Bhutan to enter inhumanely evicted refugees to Nepal, denied asylum in its soil, managing transportation to cross its border and not allowing them to return home through the same path, and not even initiating to pressurize the Druk Government to repatriate its citizens etc. are some of the important behaviors India has displayed. They are very significant in this context simply because Bhutan is a country politically and economically regulated by India. Not only this, but Indian"s lack of interest in this matter despite frequent requests of the Nepal Government through formal and informal dialogues must be taken into serious consideration. Bilateral agreement between Nepal and Bhutan to classify the refugees into four categories was a serious blunder on the part of Nepal. Besides, there are other lapses in the bilateral negotiations from the Nepalese side. Along with this, the ineffective involvement of the international community in resolving the crisis is another lapse. For instance, the international community shows interest in refugee problem but does not pressurize the Bhutanese government, offers food and other humanitarian assistance to the refugees but does not sufficiently pressurize the Government of Bhutan to resolve the crisis, must be analyzed meaningfully.

9.    Bhutan"s Perspective on Refugee Problem

The Government of Bhutan is not ready to solve the refugee problem. It has always tried to create confusion and prolong the problem. For example, Bhutan"s initial remark was that there were very few refugees in Nepal. It charged that the number of refugees in the camps increased to more than 100,000 due to certain attractions. Bhutan further says that the people residing in the camps are not refugees and Nepal, by giving shelter to non-Bhutanese, is carrying out anti-Bhutan activities.
Likewise, UN and UNHCR and other organizations have added fuel to fire by providing economic and other assistance. Refugees in the camps are ready-made terrorists and bringing them into Bhutan is importing terrorism. Therefore, Bhutan forwards an argument, holds a stance that refugees should not be repatriated. As majority of the refugees are Nepali speaking people, they in the long run would assimilate and vanish into the Nepalese society because of similar language, culture, employment and nuptial ties.

This is what Bhutan thinks about refugees. In fact, Bhutan"s thought in this regard is wrong. For two reasons, Bhutan has always been creating obstacles to resolve the problem by forwarding illogical and irrational arguments to escape from logical and objective solution to the problem.

In the Bhutanese perspective, the problem should not be internationalized and Nepal"s effort to internationalize it is inappropriate. Therefore, Bhutan is not in favor of involving third party in the negotiation. Bhutan is not at all positive and serous about solving the problem. The Druk Kingdom wants to solve the problem only in accordance with its laws, lingering international community in its mock diplomacy. Its wants to take back only selected 2,000-4,000 refugees. Bhutan"s unwillingness to negotiate with refugees at all cost is wrong and impractical.

10.    Nepal"s Failures

Providing asylum to refugees on humanitarian ground in usual but failing on several grounds is unusual. Nepal has failed in several grounds like in bilateral negotiations, allowing refugees to enter into the country one after another and in diplomatic policies as well. All refugees are not Nepali speaking people, all Nepali speaking refugees are Bhutanese, etc. must have been clarified by Nepal. It had insufficient homework to state the issue explicitly. Nepal"s weakness can also be observed on being unable to pressurize the Government of Bhutan to hold talks with refugee leaders. In addition, it was also incapable to include UNHCR in negotiations and flatly accepted the baseless four categorization before verification.

Similarly, to have hopes and illusions that India would participate and help solve the problem, not to have common consensus or national policy on it (until last year), to rear illusion about Bhutan"s positive attitude to solve this problem, not to identify strong option to solve the problem or being unable to release it and assess Bhutan"s treacherous diplomacy are some of the weaknesses on the part of Nepal. In the days to come, Nepal must articulate its perspective successfully by correcting its past weaknesses.

The lacking part of Nepal is that it could not realize the fact that dignified and safe repatriation is the only solution to the problem. The guiding principle of Nepal should have been that Bhutan had to take its evicted citizens back with dignity. And those found non-Bhutanese in the camps had to be verified strictly. In the same way, sitting for talks without clear vision and sufficient homework was also another weakness on the part of Nepal.

11.    Solution to the Problem
As mentioned above, dignified repatriation is the only solution to the Bhutanese refugee problem. They should also be given back their looted and seized properties and allowed to live with and enjoy full freedom and develop their culture, language, art, literature and religion as other citizens in Bhutan do. In this regard, Nepal must be alert, active and clear. In the upcoming talks, this issued must be raised strongly and clearly and it is the final thrust of universal values and international laws. There could be no other options regarding the solution to the problem.

The Bhutanese people should be allowed to live in their motherland. Nobody should be stateless in the world. Other options will only be sought when Bhutan goes beyond its responsibility to and obligations upon its citizens. So, the alternative option must be sought in the upcoming dialogue.

12.    Options of Solution to the Problem

  • Dignified repatriation
  • Assimilation and vanishing of refugees into the Nepalese society (Nepal cannot agree upon assimilation and vanishing.)
  • Keeping as usual in the camps (It is inhumane to keep the refugees as usual in the camps and that cannot be agreed. Besides, it is difficult to receive foreign assistance/aid for a longer period.) and
  • Third country resettlement.

13.    Is Repatriation of Refugees Possible ?

  • There would be two possible ways and options of repatriation:​
  1. Dialogue and diplomatic efforts, and
  2. Movement and public pressure


  • Bhutan is not ready to take its citizens back. Fifteen rounds of formal bilateral talks and several rounds of informal dialogues have gone in vain. A long period of 17 years has passed since the problem of Bhutanese refugees emerged. It is Nepal"s bitter experience based on reality. Hence, a better future cannot be expected. Repatriation of refugees is seen no more than a mirage.
  • Mirror movements of the Maoist-affiliated youths in the camps are not expected to bring about changes in Bhutan. It can simply create illusion, suspicion, fear and division among the refugees.
  • Peaceful movement could be successful, but it is time taking for generating awareness and strengthening unity and solidarity.
  • Therefore, repatriation at present and in the near future seems impossible.

14.    Is Third Country Settlement a Solution ?

  • Absolutely not. It is an option of not having any solution in the present context.
  • Dignified repatriation is the only solution. If the problem is not resolved, solution is to be sought and third country resettlement could be another option.
  •  Confusion and lack of clarity can be found looming large somewhere among the refugees themselves. While living in Nepal, Bhutan would be near. The assumption of far and near is wrong. Refugees failed to reach Thimpu and Bhutan from the camps in Jhapa and Morang in the last 17 years. Bhutan could be reached within 24 hours even fro America. Hence, there is no question of geographical distance. Well-equipped and easy living in a developed place would enhance the ability of refugees for repatriation.

15.    Points to be Taken into Consideration Regarding Third Country Resettlement

  • Bhutanese refugees should not be taken to the third countries as a stateless group, but as the exiled/evicted Bhutanese citizens.
  • Bhutanese refugees should be taken for resettlement collectively but not selectively.
  • At least one camp should be taken in a single trip and the huts in the camp should be removed immediately.
  • Timeframe of the first trip and the last trip should not exceed three years.
  • The countries, which have shown interest to resettle the refugees, should accommodate the entire refugee population in a collective manner.
  • Rights  and  responsibilities  of  the  refugees  in  the  countries  where  they  would  be  resettled should be clarified and agreed in advance.

16.    Responsibilities Nepal has to Shoulder Now Onwards

  • At least one more chance should be give to Bhutan for the solution to the problem and the decisive final dialogue should be held immediately.
  • If the solution is not possible from the final talks, Nepal should avoid the drama of such futile and meaningless bilateral talks and go for a third country resettlement.
  • Bilateral talks and third country resettlement process should not be initiated simultaneously. Doing so is not meaningful and ethical as well.
  • If Bhutan agrees on repatriation, timeframe and other necessary conditions should be pointed out clearly without delay.

17.    Points to be Noted
The scenes of the democratization drama staged by Bhutan have been showing further possibility of ethnic cleansing there. So, we must be aware of it and avert it. In this regard, the international community must be informed of it and they should be mobilized. If we fail to do so, the same story would be repeated.