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File:Lotshampa refugees in Beldangi Camp.jpg

Bhutanese refugees in Beldangi Camp presenting a Bhutanese passport

The Bhutanese refugees are Lhotshampas, a group of people of Nepalese origin, including some Kirat, Tamang, and Gurung peoples. These refugees registered in refugee camps in eastern Nepal during the 1990s claiming to be Bhutanese citizens forcibly expelled from Bhutan.

Historical background

The earliest surviving records of Bhutan's history show that Tibetan influence already existed from the 6th century. King Songtsen Gampo, who ruled Tibet from 627 to 649 AD, was responsible for the construction of Bhutan's oldest surviving Buddhist temples, the Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and the Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang. Settlement in Bhutan by people of Tibetan origin happened by this time.

The first reports of people of Nepalese origin in Bhutan was around 1620, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal commissioned a few Newar craftsmen from the Kathmandu valley in Nepal to make a silver stupa to contain the ashes of his father Tempa Nima.[1]

During the late 19th Century, contractors working for the Bhutanese government began to organise the settlement of Nepali-speaking people in uninhabited areas of southern Bhutan in order to open those areas up for cultivation.[2] The south soon became the country's main supplier of food. By 1930, according to British colonial officials, much of the south was under cultivation by a population of Nepali origin that amounted to some 60,000 people.[2]

Settlement in Bhutan of large numbers of people from Nepal happened for the first time in the early 20th century. This settlement was encouraged by the Bhutan House in Kalimpong for the purpose of collecting taxes for the government. In the 1930s, the Bhutan House settled 5,000 families of Nepali workers in Tsirang alone. In the 1940s, the British Political Officer Sir Basil Gould was quoted as saying that when he warned Sir Raja Sonam Tobgye Dorji of Bhutan House of the potential danger of allowing so many ethnic Nepalese to settle in southern Bhutan, he replied that "since they were not registered subjects they could be evicted whenever the need arose"[3]

Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1958

Toward the end of the reign of the second King Jigme Wangchuck in the 1950s, the numbers of new immigrants had swelled causing tension between the King and the Dorji family in the Bhutan House.[citation needed] Amnesty was given through the Citizenship Act of 1958 for all those who could prove their presence in Bhutan for at least 10 years prior to 1958.

From 1961 onward however, with Indian support, the government began planned developmental activities consisting of significant infrastructure development works. Uncomfortable with India's desire to bring in workers in large numbers from India, the government initially tried to prove its own capacity by insisting that the planned Thimphu-Phuntsholing highway be done with its own workforce.

While the project was a success, completing the 182-kilometer highway in just two years, the import of workers from India was inevitable. With most Bhutanese self-employed as farmers, Bhutan lacked a ready supply of workers willing to take up the major infrastructure projects. This led eventually to the large-scale import of skilled and unskilled construction workers from India.[citation needed] These people were most of Nepali origin[citation needed] who were able to slowly settle down under the guise of the naturalized immigrants[citation needed]. With the pressures of the developmental activities, this trend remained unchecked or inadequately checked for many years. Immigration check posts and immigration offices were in fact established for the first time only after 1990.[citation needed]

Bhutan's Citizenship Act of 1985

By the 1980s, the government had become acutely conscious not just of widespread illegal immigration of people of Nepali origin into Bhutan, but also of the total lack of integration even of long-term immigrants into the political and cultural mainstream of the country. Most of the immigrants knew very little of the culture of Bhutan[citation needed] and most could not understand any of the local languages including Dzongkha. In the rural areas they remained so "Nepalese" in their culture they were indistinguishable from the Nepalese in Nepal itself. For its part, government officials had long ignored the situation and assumed that most of these people who were most often observed in non-Bhutanese clothes were in fact non-Bhutanese visitors or foreign residents. There was also a perception of a Greater Nepal movement emerging from the Nepali-dominated areas in Nepal, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and West Bengal which the Bhutanese feared as Nepali chauvinism.

Perceiving this growing dichotomy as a threat to national unity, the government promulgated directives in the 1980s that sought to preserve Bhutan's cultural identity as well as to formally embrace the citizens of other ethnic groups in a "One Nation One People" policy. The government implied that the "culture" to be preserved would be that of the various northern Bhutanese groups. To reinforce this movement, the government forced the use of the Driglam Namzha, the Bhutanese national dress and etiquette code. This policy required citizens to wear the attire of the northern Bhutanese in public places and reinforced the status of Dzongkha as the national language. Nepali was discontinued as a subject in the schools, thus bringing it at par with the status of the other languages of Bhutan, none of which are taught. Such policies were criticized at first by human rights groups as well as Bhutan's Nepalese economic migrant community, who perceived the policy to be directed against them.

The Citizenship Act of 1985 clarified and attempted to enforce the Citizenship Act of 1958 in order to control the flood of illegal immigration. In 1988, the government conducted its first real census exercise. The basis for census citizenship classifications was the 1958 "cut off" year, the year that the Nepali population had first received Bhutanese citizenship. Those individuals who could not provide proof of residency prior to 1958 were adjudged to be illegal immigrants.

Bhutan's first census (1988)

The issue was brought to the fore when the government of Bhutan discovered in its first census the magnitude of the Lhotsampa population.

Lhotsampa of Nepali descent who had been living in southern Bhutan since the late nineteenth[4] [5] [6] and early twentieth centuries were induced to leave Bhutan after the country carried out its first census in 1988.

The government however failed to properly train the census officials and this led to some tension among the public. Placement in the census categories which ranged from "Genuine Bhutanese" to "Non-nationals: Migrants and Illegal Settlers" was often arbitrary, and could be arbitrarily changed.[7] In some cases members of the same family have been, and still are, placed in different categories.[7] The government also attempted to enforce the Bhutanese driglam namzha dress and language code at the same time. These measures combined to alienate even bona fide citizens of Nepali descent. As the census exercise came to an end, the southern border of Bhutan became a hotbed of militancy for several years.

Interethnic conflict

Matters reached a climax in September 1990 after organized groups of 10,000 or more ethnic Nepalis from the Indian side of the border organized protest marches in different districts, burned down schools, stripped local government officials of their national attire which they burned publicly, carried out kidnappings and murders of other ethnic Nepalis who did not join their protests. Some of the organizers of the marches were arrested and detained. They were led by the Bhutan Peoples' Party, a political party and militant group that was subsequently banned by the government. However the Bhutanese government later released most of these detainees. Those with ties to the groups responsible for murders and kidnappings were forced to leave Bhutan, but many other innocent ethnic Nepali citizens were coerced to leave by the angry ethnic Nepali dissidents.[citation needed]

The Kyodo News Agency reported the "massacre" of the demonstrators at the hands of the Bhutanese army.[citation needed] This report was reportedly submitted by a Nepali reporter[citation needed] based in Siliguri. The report was later dismissed as inaccurate but it damaged Bhutan's international image. The Kyodo News Agency reportedly apologized to the government of Bhutan for the incorrect report even though the government of Bhutan did not demand the apology in writing, not wanting to even acknowledge the claim.

In 1989, Tek Nath Rizal, a Lhotshampa and trusted official of the Royal Advisory Council who acted as a chief liaison between the government and the Nepalese population in the south, was also accused of instigating the racial riots in Southern Bhutan and was arrested; he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1993.[8] In 1998 after being granted a royal pardon, he left for Nepal to form the "People's Forum for Human Rights."

Refugees outside Bhutan

A group of several thousand left and settled in refugee camps set up by UNHCR. The UNHCR began to distribute aid to the refugees, it recognized most of the refugees from Bhutan who arrived in Nepal between 1990 and 1993 on a prima facie basis [9] Many poor, border-dwelling Nepalese claimed to be refugees as well to receive aid, and within a year the camps population exploded from around 5,000 to 100,000.[citation needed] The Bhutanese refugee issue remains unresolved.

Most of the refugees were received by camps in Nepal which currently have about 103,000 Bhutanese refugees according to UNHCR.[citation needed]

Resettlement efforts

The U.S. has offered to resettle 60,000 of the 107,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepalese origin now living in seven U.N. refugee camps in southeastern Nepal, and began receiving this group in 2008.[10] Five other nations — Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark — have offered to resettle 10,000 each.[10] New Zealand has offered to settle 600 refugees over a period of five years starting in 2008. As of January, 2009, more than 8,000 Bhutanese refugees were resettled in various countries[11].

Other countries also operate resettlement programs in the camps.[12] Norway has already settled 200 Bhutanese refugees, and Canada has agreed to accept up to 5000 through to 2012.[13]

See also


  • Rose, Leo E. (1977). The Politics of Bhutan. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-0909-8.


  1. Aris, Michael (1979). Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom. Aris & Phillips. pp. 344. ISBN 9780856681998.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Background and History: Settlement of the Southern Bhutanese". Bhutanese Refugees: The Story of a Forgotten People. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  3. Datta-Ray, Sundana K. (1984). Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim. Vikas publishing. p. 51. ISBN 0706925092.
  4. Worden, Robert L.; Savada, Andrea Matles (ed.) (1991). "Chapter 6: Bhutan - Ethnic Groups". Nepal and Bhutan: Country Studies (3rd ed.). Federal Research Division, United States Library of Congress. ISBN 0844407771. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  5. "Background Note: Bhutan". U.S. Department of State. 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  6. "Offer To Resettle Bhutan Refugees". Voice of America. 2006-10-18. Archived from the original on 2006-10-23. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "People: Lhotshampas remaining in Bhutan: a vulnerable group of people". Bhutanese Refugees: The Story of a Forgotten People. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  8. "Amnesty International welcomes release of prisoner of conscience". Amnesty International. 1999-12-21.
  9. "2010 UNHCR country operations profile - Nepal". UNHCR. 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "First of 60,000 refugees from Bhutan arrive in U.S". CNN. 2008-03-25.
  11. Sharma, Gopal (2009-01-07). "Over 60,000 Bhutanese refugees want to resettle - U.N". Reuters.
  12. IRIN (10 November 2008). "Nepal: Bhutanese refugees find new life beyond the camps". UNHCR Refworld.,IRIN,,BTN,491946b81e,0.html. Retrieved 2009-04-26.
  13. Government of Canada (9 December 2008). "Resettling Bhutanese Refugees – Update on Canada's Commitment". Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Retrieved 2009-04-26.

External links

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