Nepal: The Unsettling Resettlement of Bhutan's Refugees

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Bhutanese refugees protesting before the UN office in Kathmandu, Nepal, seeking repatriation.

As resettlement of refugees from Bhutan gains momentum and the UK becomes the eighth country to take them in, leaders in exile wonder if repatriation is now a lost cause, Deepak Adhikari writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Deepak Adhikari for ISN Security Watch

Swanky and snow-white buses emblazoned with blue IOM (International Organization for Migration) ferry a group of people who seem out of place in Kathmandu's crowd. Led by an IOM escort, the passengers - men, women children and the elderly - queue up in single file at Kathmandu's only international airport.

They are Bhutanese refugees, who after languishing in the sprawling refugee camps in southeastern Nepal, are now heading to western countries, thanks to a 2006 offer floated by the US. In early October that year, Ellen Saurbrey, US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, told the UNHCR's executive meeting in Geneva that the US would absorb up to 60,000 refugees over three or four years.

The relocation of Bhutanese refugees (third country resettlement), which began in earnest in November 2007, is largest such project in the world.

So far 34,500 Bhutanese refugees have been relocated to western countries under the resettlement program. Among them, 29,496 have been relocated in the US; 1,877 in Canada; 1,787 in Australia; 461 in New Zealand; 335 in Norway; 236 in Denmark; and 224 in The Netherlands.

This year, the UK became the eighth country to resettle the Bhutanese. In early August, a group of 37 Bhutanese refugees left for Bolton in Greater Manchester under the UK's Gateway Resettlement program. A total of 100 Bhutanese refugees will be relocated to the UK this year as part of the country's annual quota of 500 refugees from all over the world.

Thirty two-year-old Kashinath Pokharel spent 16 years in the Kudunabari refugee camp in southeastern Nepal until he, his wife and their 16-month-old son were flown to the UK in early August. Pokharel, who spoke to ISN Security Watch said that in 1994, he and his extended family were forced to flee their village in Bhutan, heading to India and then further on to Nepal, after India refused to recognize them as refugees. In Nepal, they were corralled in the Khudunabari camp, one of 17 such settlements run by the UNHCR.

The eviction

Bhutanese refugees are victims of what they claim to be ethnic cleansing, a state-orchestrated campaign aimed at the depopulation of the country's south, dominated by Nepali-speaking Hindus. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bhutan evicted 120,000 people on the grounds that they posed political and cultural threats to the Buddhist kingdom.

According to Balaram Paudel, president of Bhutan People's Party, the state conducted an impromptu census only in the south. Conducted on the basis of Citizenship Act 1985, it was made mandatory for the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese to produce documentary evidence of legal residence in the country before 1958. Those who failed to produce the evidence were declared non-citizens. The state also required them to obtain a 'No Objection Certificate' in order to work, to get a license or to attend a school. The southerners were divided into seven categories and many who were married to foreigners were declared stateless, said Paudel.

On November 9, 1989, Paudel - who was a village head man (mandal) of Bada block in the southern village of Sibsu village - fled to India, where he and other leaders-in-exile formed the Bhutan People's Party. Now even his party's central committee members have opted for resettlement. Gopal Gurung, the party's central committee member, recently left for The Netherlands.

The official version of events does not even recognize those who fled as refugees, referring to them instead as 'illegal immigrants,' with the government denying any claims of 'ethnic cleansing' or moves aimed at getting rid of the Nepali-speaking Hindus. In an interview with Al Jazeera in mid-July this year, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley said that "the vast majority of people in camps are not Bhutanese. ... [The] People in the camps in Nepal are the victims of humanitarian situations caused by demographic explosion, ecological disaster and economic depreciation." He also suggests that the Nepalese are inherently migratory and have little regard for international boundaries, while in Bhutan, and should be considered "economic/migrant" refugees.

He writes: "The first sightings of Nepalese in the southern foothills are reported by Charles Bell in 1904 followed closely by John Claude White in 1905. All Bhutanese records confirm that no Nepalese settled in any part of Bhutan until then."

Paudel, and many others, disagree. "Historical records show that the ethnic Nepalese started to settle in the south from 17th century," says Paudel. In his book "Bhutan: Hijo Ra Aja (Bhutan: Yesterday and Today), he has traced the migration of Nepalese architects and artists from Kathmandu Valley to Thimphu 400 years back.

A wave of laborers entered Bhutan in the 19th century, when the country needed them to help clear its malaria-infested jungles in the south. The new inhabitants were the migrant workers from eastern hills of Nepal as well as Nepalese living in Northeast and West Bengal in India. They were granted Bhutanese citizenship in 1958.

Repatriation versus resettlement

The movement for repatriation started as soon as they were settled in the camps. There have been several failed attempts at returning home. In 1996, exile-based political parties formed the Bhutanese Coalition for Democratic Movement and organized a mass rally in Kakarbhitta, a border town in southeastern Nepal. According to Paudel, one of the leaders of the movement and several demonstrators were arrested by Indian security forces, and the rally was called off. In 1997, the Association of Human Rights Activists led an 'appeal movement,' which also ended in failure and with the arrest of hundreds of protesters. The same year, the United Front for Democracy was formed to start a concerted movement for repatriation. But with the arrest of its leader, Rongthong Kuenley Dorji, on 18 April 1997 in New Delhi, the program was cancelled.

On 28 May 2007, as Bhutan was gearing up for the elections, the refugees staged a peace rally. Again, they were stopped by the Indian security forces on the Nepal-India border. Indian security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and injuring others. The leaders were forced to call off the demonstrations. This effectively marked the end of such protests, with most of the refugees turning their attention to resettlement.

In 2008, Bhutan became the world's newest democracy, two years after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated his throne in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The Oxford-educated, 30-year-old Wangchuck became Bhutan's fifth king. With the prime minister's Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party winning an overwhelming majority in the first-ever parliamentary elections two years ago, the country now boasts a democratically elected government.

According to the first constitution promulgated in 2008, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy and the king is the head of state. But leaders-in-exile say the new democracy is a farce. Tek Nath Rizal, a former Royal Advisory Councilor who spent 10 years inside Bhutanese jails, told ISN Security Watch that "the two political parties are puppets of the king because both are controlled by royal family."

And after the 15 rounds of talks between Bhutan and Nepal failed to yield any tangible results, prospects for returning home have indeed waned. Opinions are divided on the issue of resettlement. Leaders like Paudel are more optimistic about repatriation, and hold out hope that those being resettled to western countries "can be more organized and vocal in their country of resettlement," and "will be empowered and will be able to exert pressure on Bhutan."

Rizal disagrees, with refugees now scattered across a dozen countries, he thinks organizing any formidable challenge to Bhutan for repatriation will be very difficult. "The US should have raised the issue of repatriation with Bhutan before it proceeded to take the refugees," he says, "The resettlement and repatriation should have gone hand-in-hand."

So far, 56,444 refugees out of remaining 77,616 have declared their interest in third-country resettlement. The fate of about 20,000 others is still being decided.

Deepak Adhikari is a freelance journalist.