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Refugee News                       September 1997
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Bhutanese refugees may be returning home More information
Some 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, who have been living for eight years in refugee camps in Nepal, could be returning home if talks between the two countries end in an agreement. 

Diplomatic breakthrough

The Nepali Foreign Secretary Kumar Gyawali returned recently from Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, after talks about this issue with King Jigme Singhye Wangchuk and other officials. The talks are being considered a breakthrough after all previous rounds of bilateral talks since 1993 ended unsuccessfully. 

A ruling minority 

Refugees from Bhutan began streaming into Nepal in 1990, soon after the government in Thimpu started discriminating between the ruling Buddhists and the Bhutanese of Nepali origin. The reason for this action was the fear of the ruling minority of being inundated. 

Bhutan's population consists of three main groups: the Ngalung Drukpas of West Bhutan, the ruling ethnic group (16 per cent), Sarchops (31 per cent), and Nepali-speaking people (53 per cent). The ruling minority felt that its identity was about to be overwhelmed by the majority, many of whom they consider illegal immigrants. The King and his officials are afraid that Bhutan will soon cease to be a 'Bhutanese' nation. They consider the Drukpas an "endangered species". 

First came a Citizens Act which, in 1985, retroactively introduced new citizenship criteria. In 1988 a royal decree demanded strict nationwide observance of Drig Lam Namzhe, a code of social etiquette specific to the Drukpas. Then in an attempt to preserve the Buddhist character of the Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan decided to expel all those who could not prove that they have been living in the country for more than three decades. 

 Most people did not have proof of identity and some 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, had to leave the country. They crossed into the eastern districts of Nepal through India, which shares borders with Nepal and Bhutan. They now live in very bad conditions in eight UNHCR camps. There are also an estimated 30,000 unassisted Bhutanese in Nepal and West Bengal, India. 

The expulsions and departures have excited little international interest because of Bhutan's remoteness, its often silent media, and the willingness of the country's giant southern neighbour, India, to turn a blind eye. 

Controversial classification 

Nepal has always insisted that the refugees in the camps are Bhutanese citizens and should be allowed to return. Bhutan, on the other hand, maintains that not all the refugees in the camps are genuine. The two sides talk about four categories of refugeesó those who were forcibly evicted from Bhutan, those who migrated 'voluntarily', non-Bhutanese refugees and criminals who fled Bhutan. 

But even this classification has been a source of much controversy. Up to now, Bhutan had only agreed to take back those refugees who were expelled. It insists that those who left 'of their own accord' have forfeited the right to return under Bhutanese laws. However, Nepal maintains that most of these were forced to sign statements of voluntary migration and most refugees living in the UNHCR-run camps fall in this category. 

 The Nepali authorities want to repatriate all the refugees, because their continued presence in the camps has lately sparked tension with the local Nepalis, who blame them for environmental degradation and for taking away their jobs. 

The stalemate has forced groups of refugees into becoming more militant. Some have tried to force their way into Bhutan through Indian territory but are always stopped by the Indian military. Others are less eager to go back, saying they are willing to return only when Bhutan becomes a multi-party democracy and the government starts to respect human rights. There is still a long way to go in this direction. Hundreds have been jailed, and allegedly tortured or even shot. Houses, shops and temples have been destroyed. Women and children are suffering indignity and humiliation. 

 The problem concerns India as well. Nepal and Bhutan do not have a common border and the refugees trek to Nepal through West Bengal territory. Nepal has in the past accused India of permitting Bhutanese refugees to cross its territory into Nepal but not allowing them to return to Bhutan through the same corridor! 

 In another recent positive development for Bhutanese refugees, two of them have successfully lobbied the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to adopt a resolution on 'the right to return to one's own country and the right to a nationality'. They were supported in this effort by the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Lutheran World Federation and other NGO's.  

The resolution reaffirms the fundamental nature of the right of every human person to a nationality, and emphasises its opposition to all instances of arbitrary deprivation of nationality. It also requests the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure that refugees do not become stateless.

NEPAL/BHUTAN - Bhutan and Nepal inch closer to breakthrough: 

The Bhutanese Refugee Crisis 

History of the Bhutanese Refugees 

UNHCR - information on: 

Refugee News:- 
More about Nepal 
More about Bhutan 
More about India 

 Jesuit Refugee Service News