Bhutanese Refugee

Settlement of Southern Bhutanese
In about 1890, 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. 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. With an annual growth rate of between 2 and 3% and continued immigration up to 1958. This population grew to its 1988 proportions. Many refugees claim that their ancestors came to Bhutan from eastern Nepal between 1890 and 1920, and many possess documents that support this claim

In 1958 Bhutan passed its first citizenship act and the entire southern Bhutanese population, which had until then had very little security in Bhutan, was granted full citizenship. Nation wide programs of development and modernization commenced in 1961, and the economic importance of the south continued to grow as major hydroelectric power projects were established. However, southerners did not own land or settle permanently to the north of certain latitude, and there was very little interaction between the northern and southern populations until the 1960’s. During the 1960s and 1970s, with the development of education, social services and the economy, many Southern Bhutanese rose to occupy influential positions in the bureaucracy

Government repression of Southern Bhutanese
During the 1980s, the Southern Bhutanese came to be seen as a threat to the political order. A new citizenship act passed in 1985 became the basis for a so-called census exercise in southern districts, in which every member of the southern population had to produce documentary evidence of legal residence since 1958, or else risk being declared a non-national. In 1989, all Bhutanese became liable to a imprisonment if they ventured out in anything other than northern traditional costume, and the Nepali language was removed from the school curriculum. Public demonstrations against these and other new policies took place in all southern districts in autumn 1990, and all who took part were branded “anti-nationals” by the government. Several thousand southern Bhutanese were imprisoned for many months in the most primitive conditions; more than two thousand were tortured during their imprisonment; very few were formally charged or stood trial. Many of those who were subsequently released in amnesties declared by the king of Bhutan found that their houses had been demolished and their families had fled the kingdom.

Expulsion of Southern Bhutanese
The first refugees fled to neighboring India, but were notpermitted to set up permanent camps there and had to move on to eastern Nepal. Repressive measures continued against suspected dissidents and their families, and indeed against Southern Bhutanese in general, during 1991 and 1992. As more and more people had their citizenship revoked in the successive annual censuses, a trickle of refugees into Nepal during 1991 turned into a flow of up to 600 per day in mid-1992. By the end of that year, some 80,000 were sheltering in UNHCR-administered camps in Nepal’s two southeastern districts. The numbers in the camps have since swelled by some 10,000 more.

Refugee Life
Of the estimated 100,000 southern Bhutanese who lost their homes, lands, livelihoods and country between 1990 and 1993. Not a single person has yet been allowed home. Although the Bhutanese government coerced thousands into signing what it claims were voluntary emigration certificates it does admit tacitly that the camps contain bona-fide citizens who were elected from Bhutan against their will. The governments of Nepal and Bhutan have met seven times at ministerial level to try to resolve the problem that is souring relations between their two countries. All attempts to move towards a joint survey of the camp population that would establish how many have a right to repatriation have so far failed. In 1996, camp residents organized a peace march to put their grievances before the king. They were first arrested by Indian officials and then, having secured a release and entered Bhutan, they were deported by Bhutanese police in the most peremptory way.

During the early 1990s, the unelected, unaccountable rulers of a tiny, beautiful kingdom in the eastern Himalayas quietly relieved themselves of thousands of members of an ethnic minority that they feared might undermine their power. Very few outside the immediate region know that this was done, and many of those who do still choose to give the Bhutanese government the benefit of their doubt. Meanwhile 100,000 men, women and children are paying the price for the international community’s ignorance and complacency.

Bhutanese fleeing Bhutan in early 1991 first arrived in Assam and West Bengal in India. They set up makeshift camps and hoped for the situation in Bhutan to normalize. A small group crossed into Nepal. The refugees by the banks of the Mai river established the first camp. In July 1991. there were 235refugees encamped in Maidhar and nearby Timai.

From August 1991, the influx of refugees increased at the rate of 1,000 a month. The flow of refugees leaped in February 1992 to a massive 10,000 per month. The period from February to March 1992 saw the refugee population rise to 48,000.

Conditions at Maidhar in late 1991 were grim, but the Bhutanese quickly organized themselves and sought help from the local community. Local Nepalese responded with donations of rice, bamboo, money and wood. However, with thousands to feed and shelter it was becoming impossible to manage. Many died and hundreds suffered from malnutrition and disease.

UNHCR Becomes Involved
Urgent appeals for help resulted in assistance from Lutheran World Service (LWS), and in ad hoc humanitarian relief from UNHCR at the end of 1991. Following formal requests from the Nepalese government, UNHCR began regular assistance to the Bhutanese refugees at the beginning of 1992. UNHCR now channels its assistance through its implementing partners.

At its peak, the population of Maidhar camp was 24.000. The site was susceptible to flooding and dangerously overcrowded. Refugee leaders and Nepali Government officials, with some assistance from NGOs. located new sites in Jhapa and Morang districts of South East Nepal. Seven camps in these districts now shelter more than 9 1.000 refugees.

The Bhutanese refugees in Nepal receive a plot and bamboo to build their hut. The 5m X 5m hut must shelter a maximum of eight people. The refugees themselves must pay for repairs or rebuilding of huts. To pay for these expenses or to supplement their basic food ration, many people break stones all day. A truckload of stones, a month’s work, yields Rupees 700 (about $14).

This report was written during 1999.

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