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Lhotshampas: Evicted from Bhutan

By Jenelle Eli

Over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, who had settled in Bhutan since the 19th century, were evicted from Bhutan in the 1990s, following a movement to protect the Bhutanese cultural identity. They now live in seven refugee camps in Nepal. Seventeen years of poverty and statelessness have given way to violence and hopelessness, and youth are increasingly joining violent political movements

When the first planeload of Bhutanese refugees lands in the United States in 2008, its passengers will have accepted an offer from the US government that has exacerbated political faultlines, leading to factionalism and violence in the crowded refugee camps of southeastern Nepal. These temporary residences, located in Maoist hotspots in Nepal's Jhapa and Morang districts, have been home to over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese expelled from Bhutan in the 1990s.

On the surface, the United States' unconditional offer of resettlement of the Bhutanese refugees may seem like an unambiguous cause for celebration, but in fact the proposal has triggered an explosive response, polarising the camps between refugees who accept the offer and those who resist the idea of resettlement. The initiative to resettle Bhutanese refugees is complicated by local and regional politics and has given way to violence and intimidation in all seven camps.

History of the crisis: Citizenship revoked

Bhutan's Lhotshampa population, an ethnic group that speaks Nepalese, practises Hinduism and has populated the country's south since the 19th century, has faced discrimination from Bhutan's ruling class for decades. During a period of relative openness in the Himalayan kingdom's political history, Lhotshampas were granted blanket citizenship in 1958, though job and marriage discrimination endured.

In the 1980s, illegal immigration re-emerged as a political issue and King Jigme Singye Wangchuk's desire to maintain a Bhutanese cultural identity based around "one culture, one people" led to the 1985 Citizenship Act. The policy promoted the ruling class's language and religion -- Lamaistic Buddhism -- favouring the Ngalong Drukpa ethnic group. The law put a ban on the Nepalese language, required a traditional form of dress, restricted the practice of Hinduism, and even placed hairdo limitations on the population. Lhotshampas who were unable or unwilling to adhere to the constraints, or were incapable of proving citizenship (by, for example, producing decades-old documents), were re-classified as "illegal immigrants". By the early-1990s, the Citizenship Act ensured that one-sixth of Bhutan's population was denaturalised; political resistance was met by more persecution from the government. A powerful intimidation campaign ensured that Lhotshampas were forcibly evicted, many enduring rape, arbitrary arrest, torture and killing. First-hand accounts indicate that thousands of Lhotshampas were made to sign voluntary migration forms at gunpoint before receiving paltry compensation for their land and leaving the country (1). Refugees fled to southeastern Nepal where seven camps were eventually established and which today house over 107,000 exiled Lhotshampas.

Predictably, conditions in the refugee camps are harsh. The healthcare system is under-funded and wholly inadequate for refugees with chronic diseases. Every refugee I spoke to mentioned that the education system is slipping due to low pay for teachers; there is no higher education system. Two refugees noted that the briquettes provided as cooking fuel cause respiratory problems. Refugees find illegal employment in Nepal's informal sector. Lack of building material and warm clothing for their children make for long winters.

Seventeen years of poverty and statelessness have given way to violence and hopelessness. Depression among women is common, huts are built in such close proximity that conflict among neighbours is practically inevitable and youths are increasingly joining violent political movements. Ostensibly, the offer of resettlement alleviates camp residents of their anxiety, yet when I asked about the hardships in Nepal, one man replied: "The present security situation is the worst thing that the refugees are experiencing (2)."

Determination of refugee status

The Bhutanese government, in collaboration with the government of Nepal and without the international community's participation, has set up a system of categorisation of camp residents that effectively denies refugees the right of return. The Nepal-Bhutan team has divided camp residents into four categories:

  1. Bona fide Bhutanese who have been forcibly evicted
  2. Bhutanese who have voluntarily emigrated
  3. Non-Bhutanese people
  4. Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.

While the Bhutanese government defends the categorisation by maintaining that many camp residents are actually Nepalis taking advantage of UNHCR charity, the team's conclusions are confusing and fiercely contested by the Lhotshampas themselves.

Why? Firstly because Drukpa Bhutanese were resettled on vacated land in the south of the country, therefore Lhotshampas in the first category will not be able to return to their property. Secondly, refugees who fall within the second category will be required, on their return to Bhutan, to reside in a camp for three years, after which they will be evaluated on their knowledge of Bhutanese history, culture, and the Dzongkha language. It comes as no surprise that Lhotshampas, who claim to have been forced to sign voluntary migration forms, are opposed to the complicated process of naturalisation. Third, bona fide Lhotshampas falling within the third category, those who could not prove residence in Bhutan, are left stateless; their rights to repatriation and/or resettlement are dubious at best. Finally, those in the fourth category will, on their return to Bhutan, be tried for their alleged crimes (and likely convicted for anti-national activities).

Also hanging in the balance is the fate of 10,000-15,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal who were not covered by the classification process, and the 15,000-30,000 exiled in India where they are eligible neither for refugee status nor UNHCR assistance.

Resettlement and resistance

The UNHCR generally promotes three long-term solutions to the refugee predicament worldwide. The preferred option is repatriation (voluntary return to one's home country), then local integration in the country of refuge, and finally, voluntary resettlement in a third country.

The protracted Lhotshampa crisis has prompted the UNHCR and Nepalese government to endorse resettlement. The UNHCR's representative in Nepal said: "The UNHCR prefers to help refugees go back to their home countries when they can do so in safety and dignity. However, in this case, the only option currently available (for the Lhotshampa population) is resettlement in a third country for those refugees who wish to make this choice (3)." The US offer to resettle 60,000 Bhutanese refugees has prompted thousands of Lhotshampas in camps to start the application process by filling out forms and attending orientation meetings with the US government's resettlement branch and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Many Bhutanese refugees, who have been eagerly awaiting a durable solution for over 16 years, are apprehensive about accepting the offer, worried that the United States has ulterior motives or that the initiative will fall apart, much like Nepal's promise to successfully negotiate repatriation with the Bhutan government. Human Rights Watch (HRW) blamed lack of information for the refugees' scepticism. A recent HRW report found that many Lhotshampas are concerned that the United States plans to "take" refugees without permission, that families will be separated in the process, that they will face religious persecution in their new country, and that the United States is exploiting refugees for geopolitical reasons (4). Significantly, refugees are suspicious that once they accept the offer for resettlement, their rights to repatriate to Bhutan will be extinguished. One woman asked: "Will we have the same rights as US citizens? Will they not evict us after 15-20 years, like they did in Bhutan? Our forefathers went to Bhutan, and we were evicted. We fear that the US will do that too (5)."

Resettlement activists, who made it clear in interviews that they promote all three durable solutions, are tackling this widespread scepticism by educating refugees about the process of settling in the United States and their undeniable right to return to Bhutan when the political climate is more favourable. Activists I spoke to argue that resettlement is the appropriate solution for now, maintaining that the time was not right for repatriation given the government's discriminatory citizenship laws. To date, no Lhotshampa refugee has ever successfully repatriated to Bhutan (6).

Activists argue that agencies in refugee camps offer no hope for progress, that long-term employment is out of the question, and that disaffected youth in the camps are finding radical outlets for their hopelessness. One refugee told me: "Any solution (among the three options) is definitely believed to be better than being in the refugee camps (7)." It should also be noted that Bhutanese refugees, many of whom were taught in the camps by the Jesuit Refugee Service, have a tradition of English education (8), making at least linguistic integration into American society promising.

Despite resettlement activists insisting that returning to Bhutan is still the preferred solution, they have been forced to demand increased security from the Nepal government in order to continue their education efforts. While the argument for prompt resettlement appears straightforward, repatriation activists worry that any shift in focus will sideline their argument for the refugees' right of return.

Prospects for repatriation

Bhutan, as a member of the United Nations, is obliged to respect the right of return as laid out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (9). The future of Bhutanese refugees has long been left to the Nepal and Bhutan governments to negotiate. Years of dialogue have yielded almost nothing for the exiled Lhotshampas, and prospects for a negotiated repatriation in the near future remain dim. Grassroots organisations in the refugee camps have actively pressured governments and mobilised thousands of exiled Lhotshampas since the establishment of the camps in the early-1990s. The demand for repatriation has, over the years, been the source of hunger strikes, massive protests, and violence along the India-Nepal border.

Enjoying good relations with Bhutan and in possession of land separating Nepal from Bhutan, the Indian government has played the foil to repatriation activists, physically preventing refugees from returning to their homeland. In February 2003, thousands of refugees participated in hunger strikes to protest a meeting of donor countries discussing aid to Bhutan. In August 2005, busloads of refugees infuriated the UNHCR by heading for the India-Nepal border where they were chased back by the Indian police (10). In May 2007, Indian police killed one refugee and injured 20 during a protest of thousands demanding passage to Bhutan. A number of policemen were also injured in the protest.

Other activism is inherently peaceful. The Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB), for example, holds a satyagraha every Friday at the border, where 100-250 refugees carry banners, placards, and give speeches in order to raise awareness and teach the principles of Gandhian non-violent resistance.

When rumours started circulating in 2005 that the United States was willing to resettle Bhutanese refugees, the reaction of repatriation activists ranged from passive disappointment to direct harassment of resettlement proponents whom they saw as traitors. S B Subba, Director of HUROB, educates camp residents about their right to repatriation and about the hardships that resettled refugees face in the United States. HUROB also lobbies international governments to pressure Bhutan to repatriate the Lhotshampa population. In my interview with Subba, he argued for repatriation from both an international law point of view and a practical one. For him, the case for repatriation is as follows:

  • Property of exiled Lhotshampas was confiscated or signed over under duress; they have the right of return.
  • There is sentimental attachment to the soil.
  • Neither exiled Lhotshampas nor their relatives still residing in Bhutan should remain stateless. Their rights to citizenship and to a homeland should be ensured. Lhotshampas in Bhutan remain a marginalised group and many are worried that they will be forcibly evicted.
  • Resettlement in the United States will require massive adaptation to new cultural, linguistic and religious norms. It will be difficult for refugees to adjust (11).

While organisations like HUROB worry that the case for repatriation will be sidelined by the massive resettlement of refugees, other activists are concerned that resettlement will ruin any chances of repatriation to Bhutan. The Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), for example, operates in the camps and recruits from the scores of disaffected youth. Maoists, most of whom openly advocate the overthrow of the Bhutanese monarchy, threaten resettlement advocates in the camps. Armed groups in camps with the highest concentration of Maoists (Beldangi I, Beldangi II and Beldangi III extension) instigate violence and carry out intimidation. Repatriation activists see resettlement as a distraction from Bhutan's human rights abuses and from the Lhotshampa population's right of return under international law. They argue that accepting resettlement in a third country will effectively reward the Bhutanese government for declaring the ethnic Nepalese stateless. Activists also maintain that abandoning the cause will endanger the remaining Lhotshampa population living in Bhutan.

According to the UNHCR, repatriation organisations propose that one member from each resettled family remain in Nepal in order to continue the fight for democracy in Bhutan, a suggestion rejected by the UNHCR. Resettlement proponents, on the other hand, insist that Lhotshampas residing in the United States will help their right of return, not harm it, by raising awareness abroad.

Violence and intimidation

Although the media has reported intimidation of refugees opting for resettlement, the more extreme (and increasingly common) cases have been under-reported. Hari Bangaley, a volunteer for the Bhutanese Refugee Durable Solution Coordination Committee (BRDSCC), wrote that even those advocates who work for all three of the UNHCR's durable solutions -- repatriation, local integration, and resettlement - are targets. In an email interview, he wrote: "There are written and verbal threats to life and physical actions against those desiring to be resettled... refugee huts and their property destroyed or burned. There is a strong retaliation against the security forces deployed to control the situation. There are over 150 refugees displaced as the radicals hunt them in the camps and around. As there is no proper security arrangement... (refugees) are not confident of the security arrangement (12)." Bangaley was an elected camp secretary (head of the management committee) at Beldangi II camp before an attempt on his life caused him to flee the camp where he once sought refuge. While rescuing him from an assassination attempt, over 60 security personnel were injured. Bangaley remains twice displaced, along with approximately a dozen other families (13).

A female refugee I interviewed was displaced from the same camp due to her stance on resettlement. Although repatriation is her preferred option, she sees no prospect of a return and so advocates resettlement through one of the various organisations on the ground. Her activities caught the attention of the camp's Maoists who view her as a traitor for even considering resettlement. She wrote that they misrepresented her activism through the print media, vandalised her hut, and physically attacked members of her family (14).

When fighting broke out between the refugees over third country resettlement this May, two people were shot and killed by the police. Armed threats are increasingly common, much more so than when the violence began in 2005, and the unrest does not look like it is dying down.

Even as camp secretaries receive letters threatening decapitation for their efforts to explain the option of resettlement to refugees, applications and orientations for third country resettlement continue. As the refugees' future hangs in the balance, the present crisis in the camps ensures that their status quo too is at stake.
(Jenelle Eli graduated with an MA in International Relations from Ohio University in 2006. She currently interns for the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi, India, with a focus on refugee issues)

Endnotes

  1. Email interview with S B Subba, Director,Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan, December 29, 2007
  2. Email interview with Hari Bangaley, Executive Director, Bhutanese Refugee Durable Solution Coordination Committee, December 18, 2007
  3. UNHCR, 'Bhutan's refugees to be resettled from Nepal within months,' UNHCR News Stories, November 6, 2007, available at http://www.unhcr.org/news/NEWS/473088d84.html
  4. Human Rights Watch, 'Last Hope: The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India: VIII', May 2007, available at http://hrw.org/reports/2007/bhutan0507/8.htm#_Toc165086531
  5. Ibid
  6. Email interview with S B Subba, Director, Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan, December 6, 2007
  7. Email interview with anonymous, December 12, 2007
  8. Interview with Ravi Nair, Director, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, December 14, 2007
  9. United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 (II), available at http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html
  10. Haviland, Charles, 'Despair of Nepal's unwanted exiles', August 30, 2005. BBC News, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4194616.stm
  11. Email interview with S B Subba, Director, Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan, December 6, 2007
  12. Email interview with Hari Bangaley, Executive Director, Bhutanese Refugee Durable Solution Coordination Committee,December 18, 2007
  13. Email interview with anonymous, December 12, 2007
  14. Email interview with anonymous, December 12, 2007

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008