People without a Home: Bhutanese Refugees and Third Country Rehabilitation

South Asia Conflict Monitor
May 08, 2014

Despite the fact that a large number of Bhutanese refugees are rehabilitated in seven countries– the US, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Canada– the issue still haunts the country. The seriousness of the issue came to the international community’s notice while the same was discussed again between the prime ministers of Nepal and Bhutan on the sidelines of BIMSTEC in March 2014. During the meeting, Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Kumar Koirala stressed on early repatriation of elderly Bhutanese refugees from Nepal since young people have resettled in different countries. The Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in response said: “We will see”. Since Tobgay had not given any clear response to Sushil Koirala’s proposal, perhaps Bhutan may not be interested in the repatriation of the remaining refugees living in Nepal. As a result, the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, known as ‘Lhotsampas’ will remain citizens of a second country forever. Although the numbers of the remaining refugees are small, the issue has the potential to affect bilateral relations between Bhutan and Nepal in future, given the decision of some refugees to return to Bhutan.

The issue has been a major irritant between Nepal and Bhutan since the mid-1980s. Both the countries have already discussed this issue some 15 times, without any results. Surprisingly, the Nepalese often accuse India for not helping in resolving the issue, while India treats the issue as a dispute between Bhutan and Nepal. Around 100,000 Bhutanese refugees fled the country through India fearing for their lives after the Bhutanese government introduced new citizenship rules. Although Bhutan has never rejected the repatriation of these refugees, it has agreed to the repatriation of ‘only’ properly verified genuine citizens of Bhutan. According to the Bhutanese government, most of these refugees are ‘migrants’ and have no right to live in Bhutan.

The Nepalese PM’s discussion on the issue was very important but  no solution was  found over the resettlement of around 16,000 refugees. Unless they are repatriated or resettled elsewhere, the problem will persist. Nepal’s prime minister might have thought of requesting Bhutan to at least allow the elderly people to be repatriated who do not pose a serious challenge to Bhutan’s demography, security, culture, and political stability. Nepal wants to get rid of the decade-old problem and improve bilateral ties looking beyond this issue, since both the landlocked countries face many similar challenges for their economic development. Most importantly, during the insurgency  many refugees reportedly had joined the Maoists’ rank and file in Nepal. There is a fear in Nepal that the remaining refugees may indulge in anti-national activities in future with the support of radical factions of the Maoist parties in Nepal.

According to UNHCR, out of a total of 108,000 refugees, 83,000 are rehabilitated in third countries and around 25,000 are waiting for resettlement or repatriation. According to a reliable source indicated that of these 25,000, around 9,000 have already agreed to be resettled. Among the remaining 16000, half of them are elderly and infirm people and others are not interested in third country rehabilitation due to business interests or other factors. They would prefer to either repatriate or settle in Nepal and India. The elderly refugees have reportedly formed a Senior Citizens Group to campaign for repatriation. They have also set up a registration process for those wanting to be repatriated. More than 8,000 refugees have shown interest for that. Therefore, since the number is very small, Bhutan should not have any problem in repatriating the remaining refugees.

Interestingly, while the former Thinley government was willing to repatriate only bonafide Bhutanese living in the refugee camps in Nepal, the present government is completely against it. Responding on the issue in 2012, the present prime minster said, “Repatriation is no longer possible. Repatriation of some people was a genuine possibility 10 years ago, but even then, only if the verification process was honest and complete.” [1]

Moreover, there are mixed responses to third country resettlement. Elderly persons are against it. Some younger refugees also subscribe their elders’ view. Even after third county resettlement they feel responsible to extend support to their relatives to fight for repatriation to their homeland. There are possibilities of extending moral and monetary support to the refugees living in Nepal to press for early repatriation to Bhutan. There are also reports that those who have rehabilitated in other countries are not happy. Some in fact committed suicide after rehabilitation in US. According to a report called “An Investigation into Suicides among Bhutanese Refugees in the US 2009 – 2012”, around 19 persons were committed suicide until October 2012. The rate of suicides among US-resettled Bhutanese refugees from our study was 20.3 per 100,000, higher than both the global rate and the US rate of 12.4 per 100,000.

Any early solution on the refugee issue between Nepal and Bhutan is unlikely at this moment, given the Bhutanese government’s cold response. Therefore, multiple options for the resolution of the issue look bleak and finally the onus lies with the UNHCR and the international community. The UNHCR may convince some more Western countries to share the burden with free medical aid and pension support for elderly refugees and job opportunities after resettlement. This offer may attract the remaining refugees.

[1] “Repatriation still a far cry”, Bhutan News Service, Jul 29, 2013,…


Author Note
Courtsey: South Asia Conflict Monitor, May 2014