The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, March 16, 2012


Who are the Bhutanese refugees and why are they in Madison?

The refugees who have been arriving in Madison since 2009 from eastern Nepal have a complicated history that involves migration between the small countries of Nepal and Bhutan, both tucked between India and China in the Himalayan mountains.
The refugees trace their ancestry to Nepal. They speak Nepali. They follow the Hindu religion.
Before they became refugees, they lived in Bhutan, Nepal's neighbor to the east. Their ancestors moved from Nepal to the southern lowlands of Bhutan in the late 1800s after being invited by the Bhutanese government to clear the jungles for farming. They remained there for generations and considered themselves Bhutanese. In 1958, they were granted Bhutan citizenship.
However, in the 1980s, Bhutanese authorities representing the majority Buddhist population increasingly cracked down on them, forcing them to verify their citizenship and passing laws banning their dress and removing Nepali language from schools. Thousands of protesters against the policies were put in prison, with reports of torture and other brutal punishment against them.
In the early 1990s, they fled Bhutan, finding themselves without a country. Eventually, the United Nations refugee commission granted them refugee status, setting up seven camps in eastern Nepal in 1991. Life in the camps was meager but offered them some security.
They remained in camps for decades as the Bhutan and Nepal governments negotiated possible resettlement in one or both nations. No agreement has been reached.
The United Nations began to resettle the refugees in third countries early in 2008, with the majority accepted by the United States and others finding new homes in Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Lutheran Social Services established a branch office in 2009 in Madison largely to help resettle the Bhutanese refugees, and 172 have come here since. The agency can accept about 100 new arrivals a year, said Mary Flynn, who supervises refugee resettlement for Lutheran Social Services in Milwaukee and Madison.

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