The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bhutan-Nepal Joint verification Team

Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification of Refugees
Updated on January 31, 2003

So far, Bhutan has demonstrated its enigmatic and unpredictable character over the refugee issue. Although after a decade of uncertainty, it  finally agreed to form the Joint Verification Team (JVT). The governments of Bhutan and Nepal after a protracted negotiations held since 1993 finally  formed a Joint Verification Team (JVT) to determine the status of Bhutanese refugees, a realistic resolution of the Bhutanese refugee issue is still far off. The Tenth Nepal-Bhutan Joint Ministerial Level Committee Talk (JMLCT paved the way for creation of a Nepal-Bhutan refugee Joint Verification Team (JVT).

There were around 110, 800 (15,032 refugee families) Bhutanese refugees  in the seven refugee camps as on October 2002 as per UNHCR STATISTICAL YEAR BOOK 2001 – Page  89 ANNEX A.6. The UNHCR Statistical Year Book 2001 was released in October 2002.

The JVT started its work of interviewing and verifying  Bhutanese refugees from Khudunabari refugee camp in Jhapa on March 26 2001. The JVT  selected Khudunabari camp to start with as it  has the lowest number of refugee population. This camp had 12,447 refugees.

The refugee repatriation process is still expected to  undergo the following eight stages/process (based on the analysis of current initiatives on the resolution of Bhutanese refugee issues) if Bhutan had its way of delaying tactics. In order to delay the actual repatriation of Bhutanese refugees, the Royal Government of Bhutan will insist on more delaying tactics.   Verification of refugees in just one camp was completed on December 14, 2001. As of January 2003, even the first of the following stages/process has not been completed.  


1. The verification and documentation of entire refugees of all camps by the JVT which is a technical team. It took nearly nine months to verify the refugees in just one  and smallest camp. The  verification was completed on December 14, 2001. The JVT will take at least six more years to complete the interview of refugees and verification of their documents   in the rest of six refugee camps at the current pace.

2. Harmonization of two governments' position on Categorization of refugees into four  categories after verification and documentation at the JVT level. So far, harmonization of two countries' position has remained the most difficult task. As the two have conflicting views on categorization. the JVT should only categorize two categories - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. The categorization has lost its relevance since more that 98 percent of verified refugees possessed documents to prove their origin and habitual residence in Bhutan

3. Submission of verification report to the Joint Foreign Secretary Level Committee (JFSLC) - sorting of differences at this level.

4. Submission of complete verification report to the Joint Foreign Ministry Level Committee (JMLC) for approval.

5. Seeking approval or ratification of the final list by the government and parliament of Bhutan

6. Final agreement on repatriation.

7. Preparation of modalities, logistics, transport on movement of refugee to Bhutan and rehabilitation measures for refugees in Bhutan.

8. Final movement of refugees to Bhutan

The above process will take more than six years, if done within a time-frame.

Verification of Refugees completed in Khudunabari December 15, 2001

The verification of refugees living in Khudunabari undertaken by the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team was completed on December 14, 2001 according to the office of the Joint Verification Team (JVT). Khudunabari was the smallest of seven refugee camps. It had 12,447 refugees with 1,963 families. The verification of refugees was started on march 26, 2001. The JVT has completed verification of 12,090 refugees from 1,935 families. The JVT took  264 days (153 working days)  to complete Khudunabari camp.

There were 569 unregistered refugees living in Khudunabari camp. 589 refugees were absent during the verification process. The status of  67 persons married from outside the camps,  41 persons married from  other camps and 4 persons of Khudunabari camp married outside were not verified. 173 children were born from the date of the start of verification till its completion. The JVT checked and verified  all documents available with refugees including  land tax paid receipts, house number, driving licence and gun licence etc.. The JVT disclosed that almost all interviewed refugees possessed some kind of documents issued to them by the Royal Government of Bhutan as proof of their last legal residence or their origin in Bhutan.

Ironically, Dr Sonam Tenzin, the Director of the Special Task Force of Bhutanese Home Ministry, who is  one of the perpetrators of the forced eviction of refugees, was the chief interviewer. As the Dzongda (Chief District Officer) of Sarbhang district, he evicted a large number of refugees. During the interviews, some refugees bluntly said that it was he who evicted them. The JVT has done nothing to wipe out the psychological stress of the refugees.

The forms the refugees required to fill up were complicated, unscientific, lengthy and time consuming. The questionnaire asking 'who evicted you' and 'why an appeal was not made to higher authority against your forced eviction', is improper, unsuitable and ridiculous. The eviction order came directly from the Bhutanese king and his ministers and hence there was no room for appeal. The JVT had been acting more like a Commission of Inquiry on forced eviction than a verification committee. It seemed that the Bhutanese head of JVT, Sonam Tenzing was trying to fix responsibility for the forced evictions. By making the refugees recall the nightmare of the torturous eviction days and excesses committed against them, the JVT was responsible for arousing the bitter feelings and animosity (dormant since long) among the refugees against the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGOB).

Slow Pace: The slow pace of the verification process has raised more questions than it could answer. The JVT checked  the citizenship ID cards, house, land, marriage, tax paid certificates and other documents of the refugees.  The average rate of interview  was 50 refugees per day. At this pace, it will take six years of 260 working days per year to complete just the interviews of all the refugee families. The JVT should have distributed proforma forms to the refugees at least one week in advance to reduce the interview time. There was hardly any secrecy in the forms that needs to be guarded. The JVT should target at least 400 refugees  per day and eliminate the lengthy process. It should minimize the interview time for refugees possessing citizenship IDs and stop wasting time finding out the reasons of eviction and the perpetrators. The JVT is there to identify Bhutanese citizens from non-Bhutanese and not to determine the reasons of their eviction or the names of perpetrators. These, if needed, can be done inside Bhutan. This will halve the interview time.  Bhutan must agree to complete the interview of refugees and  verification of their documents with in a year.

Speed up: The bilateral negotiations (JVT) cannot go on perennial basis. The process cannot be dragged on for ever. There must be a time-bound completion of verification process and the repatriation of refugees. Bhutan must agree to a time-bound completion of the current verification process and repatriation. Bhutan must agree to make the result of interview/verification of refugees public and speed up the immediate repatriation of those refugee who have been verified as genuine Bhutanese citizens. The process of verification must be made transparent.

The patience of refugee is wearing out due to the slow pace of verification/interview process and lost no faith in the JVT. Not only refugees, even the UNHCR and other international communities, including the European Union, have expressed their dissatisfaction over the slow progress in the refugee verification. Danish envoy to Nepal and representative of the European Union, Lars Hormann, on behalf of all the 15-member European Union countries, visited the camp and the JVT Office on 30th April said, "Although we are satisfied with the procedures applied, we are concerned with the speed of the process." The European Union (EU) is one of the major sponsors of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' programme in the camps.

There was only one group of JVT. The refugees started to demand for the increase in the number of the JVT groups. They wanted the number of JVT increased to at least 3 to 5 groups to speed up the process. Due to the pressure from refugees and international community, Nepal and Bhutan agreed to hold the 11th round of JMLCT in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan from 20-23 August 2001.  Nepal proposed for the increase of the JVT into 3 groups and simplification of verification procedures -the simplification of proforma forms which refugees are required to fill up at the JVT office. Bhutan did not agree to the proposal of increasing the number of JVT group. It rather agreed to simplify the procedure of verification process. This could  only add not more than 5-10 persons   to current verification of 50 persons  per day.

If the JVT is split into 5 groups of 7 members. They could interview 50 families per day. The entire process of verification will be completed within one and half years. Just simplification of procedures will not  speed up the process. Bhutan government is not interested in speeding up the verification process. It still wants to delay the process.

Time-frame: No agreed time-frame on when the entire process of verification and repatriation can take place, have been fixed. The two nations cannot go on negotiations on perennial basis. The international community must demand a time frame and concrete road map on the completion of the verification, documentation and actual repatriation of Bhutanese refugees from Bhutan.  The verification alone is expected to take six years. The total time on verification, categorization, other official procedures and final agreement on repatriation ( if it proceeds at all at the current pace) is bound to take over ten years. The international community must be prepared to provide funding to the refugee camps for another 10 years.

No Transparency: There was no transparency in the whole exercise and the JVT was keeping the entire process in secrecy under Bhutan's demand,  thereby creating grounds for suspicion. This suspicion and fear was compounded by the non-inclusion of a third party, refugee representation or a point of appeal. The JVT was also found non-cooperative to the media. Refugees and people around the world have the right to information. Bhutanese officials have no culture of freedom. The JVT said that it will not disclose the result of the interviews on a daily basis.

The Rpyal Government of Bhutan demanded that the result of verification will not be announced before  the completion of the entire verification process. Thus, the refugees who had completed their interviews with the JVT do not know their status until the end of the entire verification process. This is a matter of grave concern for Bhutanese refugees as it directly concerns their well-being and security. There is no guarantee of the JVT providing justice to the Bhutanese refugees, the victims of persecution by a government, which is a party to the JVT. In the best interest, security and mental health of the refugees, the result of the interviews must be made public the same day. What would be the future of the refugees and their children if they are declared non-Bhutanese ten years after the verification process?

It is still not clear whether the JVT will undertake  the verification of refugees in other camps immediately. It is also not clear whether the JVT will start the categorization of refugees in Khudunabari, whose verification was completed on 14 December or they will do the categorization after completion of verification of  entire refugees in all seven camps.

Categorization: Bhutan forced Nepal to accept the  categorization of refugees into four categories:  a) Bonafide Bhutanese, if they have been evicted forcefully; b) Bhutanese who emigrated; c) Non- Bhutanese people; and d) Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts.

The Ministerial talks deadlocked on 'harmonising the two sides' positions on each categories. Bhutan deliberately proposed the categorization of refugees into four category, aimed at prolonging the resolution of problem and by doing so, Bhutan expected refugees' automatic assimilation in Nepal.

So far, harmonization of two countries' position has remained the most difficult task. They have not been able to harmonize their common position on categorization There are differences regarding the categorization of the refugees between Nepal and Bhutan. Nepal wants Bhutan to accept refugees in two categories - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. However, Bhutan insists on four categories. The categorization will be a messy affairs and it would be more complicated than the verification process. Discords, complications and confrontation are bound to occur between Nepal and Bhutan at every stage of categorization process after verification

The categorization must be done simultaneously with verification. The refugees should be categorized into  two categories - Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese.   In any case, the categorization has lost its relevance since more that 98 percent of verified refugees possessed documents to prove their origin and habitual residence in Bhutan. It is just a prolonging tactics employed by Bhutan.

Forced Eviction: The mass eviction order came from non other than the then all-powerful deputy home minister Dago Tshering. In his circular of 17 August, 1990 he ordered the Dzongdas of southern Bhutan to 'forfeit the citizenship of all the relatives' of those who participated in the first ever pro-human rights rallies in southern Bhutan. The JVT should refer to the circular rather than ask the refugees.

The RGOB made the lives of southern Bhutanese miserable by stopping the supply of food stuffs including salt and oil to the interior districts in the south following peaceful rallies. RGOB ordered the burning down of the houses of the southern Bhutanese. It closed all schools, basic health units and other facilities in southern Bhutan. It introduced the mandatory No Objection Certificate (NOC), which blocked all opportunities for the southern Bhutanese. RGOB unleashed a reign of state terror on the Lhotshampas, including indiscriminate mass arrest, mass eviction, rape, looting, plunder and custodial death, which led to their forcible exile to Nepal.It is clear that the forced eviction was intentional and done on such a mass scale at RGOB's behest that an appeal would have never been accepted. In any case, an appeal by 100,000 refugees, 20 percent of the total population of Bhutan, makes no sense. There is no process of appeal or judicial review/redress available to citizens in Bhutan. Despite this a few southern Bhutanese dared to appeal, but their appeal was rejected. The classic case of Tek Nath Rizal who was imprisoned for ten years for daring to submit an appeal to the king for review of the draconian Citizenship Act 1985 is an example.

Since the JMLC comprises ministers, it will delay matters further. Bhutan's intransigence is going to create more problems, it will create complications for as many  refugees (  could be fifty percent) by rejecting the documents or by other means.  If the JVT is to place the problems of even 50 percent of the refugees before the JMLC, one can imagine the volume of work and amount of delay that will be involved. Will it be possible for the ministers on the JMLC to sit for a marathon meeting for three or four moths at a time to sort out the problems of over 50 percent of the refugees?. The whole JVT exercise is just an excuse for Bhutan to counter international pressure on it and mislead the international community that it is engaged in negotiation for repatriation of refugees.

Neither the JMLC nor the JVT is going to deal with the resettlement of other communities from the north and east in the land of the refugees in southern Bhutan. On the one hand, Bhutan is interviewing refugees for their eventual repatriation. On the other hand, it is continuing its resettlement programme in southern Bhutan. If the resettlement is not stopped, where will the refugees go? The whole basis and process of verification is defeated by the on-going resettlement programme in southern Bhutan. The verification process thus, seems to be unrealistic and fake. The process amply demonstrates that Bhutan is neither serious nor sincere in taking back its refugee citizens. Had it been sincere, it would not have made a simple process so complicated.

Practically, the refugee issue today is where it began in 1993, the first JMLC Talk. Without the involvement of a third party or international community, the Bhutanese refugee issue is not going to be resolved at all. We urge the international community to pressurize Bhutan to agree on speeding up the process of verification, categorization and final repatriation of Bhutanese refugees

The challenge for the international community now is to monitor that the verification process is fair, equitable and time-bound and to keep continuous pressure on Bhutan until all refugees can go back home.


Performa for Verification of Bhutanese Refugees

1. Full name of the person..……………………………………………….
2. Father's Name………………………………………………………….
3. Mother's Name…………………………………………………………
4. Age, date and place of birth…………………………………………….
5. Profession/Employment…………………………………………………
6. Present Address
[a] Camp and no…………………………………………………
[b] ID Card/Registration no./Ration card number of the camp
[c] Date of admission to the camp……………………………….

7. List of Family Members [Details of each member attached]

Signature/Thumb impression of the head of Family/Individual

1. Name of the Person………………………………………………………..
2. Sex………………………………………………………………………….
3. Age, date and place of birth…………………………………………………
4. Camp Identity Document……………………………………………………
5. Marital Status………………………………………………………………..
6. Occupation…………………………………………………………………..
7. Relation to Head of family…………………………………………………..
8. Proof of relation to head of family…………………………………………..
[relevant documents if any]
9. Name of Camp……………………………………………………………….
10. Date of admission to camp…………………………………………………..

Signature/Thumb impression Signature/Thumb impression of head of family

1. Details of last address before coming to camp

2. Documents at hand
[a] Thram number………………………………………………………..
[b] House number………………….…………………………………….
[c] Tax Receipts…………………….……………………………………
[d] Citizenship/ID Card number…………………………………………
[e] Marriage Certificate………………………………………………….
[f] Other documents…………………………………………………….

3. Furnish the following details
[a] Date of departure, from where……………………………………….
[b] Reason for departure…………………………………………………

4. If forcefully evicted, specify the following
[a] Date of eviction…………………………
[b] Authority by whom eviction was done
i. Civil official
ii. Military official/Police
iii. Any other
[c] Any proof of eviction………………………………………………………
[d] If appeal was made to higher authority and if so whom? If not, why?
[e] Please furnish any other details……………………………………………

5. Neighbours in Bhutan……………………………………………………………
6. The undersigned states that this Performa has been completed voluntarily after
having fully understood the question listed on the form and that all the information given above have been filled in correctly.

Signature/Thumb impression of head of family/Individual unit
Please Click on Resettlement 

Update on April 16,  2004

 For MJC press Release please click on MJC Press

Fourteenth MJMeeting:   The fourteenth round of  Nepal Bhutan Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC) Meeting  was held inKathmandu, Nepal on May  19-22, 2003.  It was scheduled to announce the result of nearly 12,000 verified refugees of Khudunabari camp, withheld the results. This meeting   expected to  offer a breakthrough in the resolution of Bhutanese refugee imbroglio, instead,  yielded  enormous legal implication of international and regional dimension. The refugee issue has now been engulfed into a very deep regional complexities after this meeting. If Khudunabari result is any  barometer for  the dignified return of 110,000 Bhutanese refugees, then  95% of  refugees will be turned into a state of  perpetual statelessness, even if repatriated. The MJC finally agreed on their joint stand on  four categories and issued a statement on Agreed Position on the Four Categories (APFC). Please read original  official Press Release and APFC document.

Nepalese delegation was led by Foreign Minister Mr. Narendra Bikram Shah and Bhutanese delegation by Bhutanese Foreign Minister Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinlay.
The Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team ( JVT) formed to verify the documents of refugees and to interview them  started the work on March 26, 2001, and  completed  the verification work on December 15, 2001. Following, this there was a hiatus of  two years until the  12th MJC meeting  held on February 06, 2003, directed the JVT to undertake the categorization of the verified refugees. Thus, the JVT completed the categorization of 70 percent of  verified refugees by the first week of May 2003,  and the rest unresolved cases were  left for the  MJC  to decide  through political decision. It submitted the report to the MJC, which adopted the report  of the JVT and considered and categorized the unresolved cases.
The JVT and  MJC applied the APFC to determine the category status of Bhutanese refugees and the repatriation process. The  APFC will be the  main principles and guidelines for categorization and  repatriation process.  The MJC also directed the JVT to undertake the verification and categorization of about 600 absentees ( who were absent during verification) of the Khudunabari Camp within two weeks. Upon its completion, the  JVT will  officially release and make public the results of the completed categories of  Khudunabari Camp. The MJC directed the JVT  to inform   the camp residents  about the terms, procedures and facilities regarding voluntary repatriation/reapplication and similar information for those seeking to remain in Nepal  simultaneously.  The MJC also agreed on the implementation schedule on the outcome of categorization.  A  refugee can appeal against his or his family’s categorization within fifteen days after the release of categorization results. However, ‘appeals will be considered only upon the presentation of new material evidence or determination of clear error in this process’. The MJC decided to hold its  next fifteenth meeting in Thimphu from August 11 to 14, 2003
Bhutan has agreed to take back only category 1 refugees. According to the  media reports,  only 3% (360 persons ) of 12,000 refugees of Khudunabari camp fall under this category and thus, will be qualified to return home as bonafide Bhutanese citizens. Bhutan  has categorized 20% of the refugee  population under the category 3 of non-Bhutanese. What  criteria  were applied to denationalize such a high number of  population as non-Bhutanese. Bhutan wants to arrest the refugees under category 4 of criminal Bhutanese refugees.  Refugees have no faith in Bhutan’s legal and court system. The draconian National Security Act (NSA) and the Law of Thrimsung (Penal code) declare any act of  "making conversation and correspondence" criticizing the king and his government by citizens as a treasonable offence. The dissidents’ activism and their  literature, articles, reports etc. exposing the abuses of human rights by the Royal Government of Bhutan ( RGOB)  are deemed as ‘waging a war against the RGOB’.  These acts are regarded as legitimate conduct in a democratic country like Nepal and India. The case of Tek Nath Rizal is an example. The criminality of refugees’ offence, if any,   must be established in an international tribunal and not in a Bhutanese court. The question of any country handing over this category of refugees does not arise as there is a well-documented case of persecution in Bhutan.
Category2 - Bhutanese who emigrated: This is the most contentious category and deserves  critical  analysis. The APFC statement envisages   that, ‘ … people under this category  and  desiring to return, will be given the option to re-apply for citizenship”. This means that the refugees of  category 2 will have to re-apply for citizenship  under naturalization process  under Article 4  of the draconian  Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985, as  fresh immigrants, like any other aliens seeking naturalization. This Act envisages, iteralia  that “ a person desiring to apply for Bhutanese citizenship  must have resided in Bhutan for 20 years; the applicant must be able to speak, read and write Dzongkha proficiently; the applicant must have no record of having spoken or acted against the king, country and people of Bhutan in any manner whatsoever’. 
75 % of verified refugees ( 9,000) reportedly fall under this category. The refugees falling under category 2 will have to wait for 20 years in a state of statelessness  to claim Bhutanese citizenship and not in two years as have been made known. Till then they will be deprived of their basic rights as citizens.  The  refugees cannot claim naturalization as a matter of law but as a prerogative of   RGOB  and even after 20 years,  their citizenship status will not be guaranteed. Majority of refugees cannot speak Dzonkha language as a result of their exile. Similarly most refugees have spoken against the king and his government, they have taken part in the rally, demonstration in support of their human rights in and out of Bhutan, which will disqualify them for naturalization even after 20 years and they will face persecution inside Bhutan. Once, inside Bhutan, the RGOB will apply its draconian and discriminatory   laws against them and  no one can protect their  citizenship and human rights. So this agreed position is not feasible or viable for the realistic resolution of refugee issue. The criteria adopted to bring about 75% of refugees under this category is questionable and not acceptable to  the refugees. They were forcefully driven away from their homes and as such should be placed under category one. Why should Bhutanese people migrate voluntarily  to a poor country like Nepal, when Bhutan had/has better living conditions and better economic opportunities. Normally emigration is towards the rich  from the poor countries.
The APFC (d) states  that people under this category, not wishing to return to Bhutan, will be given the option to apply for Nepalese citizenship.  This is the most contentious clause in the agreement, and a  deliberate provision kept at the insistence of Bhutan to discourage the return of  majority of  refugees to Bhutan.  The Lhotshampa refugees  were driven from their homes as a result of  their human rights abuses by the RGOB. Persecution, indiscriminate arrest,  torture, killings discrimination and the reprehensible practice of ‘ethnic cleansing’ generated the  flow of Bhutanese refugees. The issue of human rights and the problems of refugees are inextricably linked. The conditions back in Bhutan, which made them refugees have become more harsher against Lhotshampas.  Their homes and lands have been  given away to others. Several thousand Lhotshampas in Bhutan, who have relatives in the camps have been denationalized by the RGOB in recent days. Majority of  refugees, if given the option of Nepalese citizenship will never  want to return to Bhutan under the present condition and terms of reference for repatriation and their settlement in Bhutan. No one  would like to remain stateless knowingly for  20 more years and live in transit camps inside Bhutan, if they have other better options. The legal responsibility of granting citizenship to Bhutanese refugees now  has been  shifted to Nepal from Bhutan. This will create enormous legal problems for the host country, Nepal. Why should Nepal take the burden of providing citizenship to the refugees, who are citizens of  Bhutan. Would this not open floodgate for others in a similar situation in  future, since more than 10 million people of Nepali ethnicity  live  in the region outside of Nepal?.  There are tens of thousands of  the inhabitants in southern Nepal, whose citizenship are not resolved yet. Will this not encourage them to launch a movement to claim the Nepalese citizenship? Can Nepal afford to grant the citizenship to 100,000 Bhutanese refugees without any national  or regional  consequences? Why should then Nepal accept refugees as citizens? Whom does it intend to appease? A precedent of this kind will bring dangerous security and geopolitical implications for Nepal in future.
The  14th MJC has categorized only 5% of refugees as genuine Bhutanese citizens and 95 % as non-bonafide citizens  Bhutan wants to take back less than 5,000 refugees in total. Through the application of APFC agreed during the  14th MJC, Bhutan   has created   a number obstacles and conditions  for  the repatriation of all refugees impossible. The refugee activists condemn  the entire verification  process  done in secrecy,  without transparency and without their or international monitors’ involvement.  What were the basis for de-categorization of such a large number of refugees from bonfide Bhutanese citizens to other non-citizen categories?  

Bhutan  wants to divide the refugees and disrupt their economic, social, political  and community life. It has  created a dangerous precedence for the  host country,  forced to  grant citizenship to the asylum seekers, who are forced to leave their homes. This will discourage the countries from granting asylum to the refugees in future putting them at the mercy of the perpetrator states. This situation needs to be reversed. There is the need of re-working  the entire process of verification and categorization in full transparency. There must be an international tribunal for the appeal and not the JVT or MJC. The UNHCR and international community  must play active role  to reduce the statelessness of Bhutanese citizens in and out of Bhutan.

Fifteenth  MJMeeting: The  15th Nepal, Bhutan Ministerial Joint Committee (MJC)  meeting was  held in Thimphu, Bhutan on October 20-23, 2003. The Kathmandu Post dated October 24, 2003  reported as follows on the outcome of 15th MJC Talk:  The Nepali delegation of the Nepal-Bhutan Ministerial Joint Committee said today that the repatriation process of Bhutanese refugees would begin as early as the second week of February 2004.  "Bhutan has made a written commitment to begin repatriation of the first batch of refugees from the Khudunabari camp from February 15," Nepal’s ambassador-at-large Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa told reporters upon his arrival here this morning.At the three-day-long 15th ministerial meeting held in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu, the Druk government, dropping its earlier reluctance to allow entry to refugees other than those falling under category 1 – bona fide Bhutanese who were forcefully evicted – finally agreed to take back category 2 (those who emigrated) and category 4 (Bhutanese who committed criminal acts).In the Joint Verification Team report submitted last June, 293 of the total 12,183 refugees in the Khudunabari camp were put in category 1; 8,595 in category 2; 2,948 in category 3, and 347 in category 3. Dr Thapa said those people falling under category 3 would be given an opportunity to prove their claim as bona fide Bhutanese. The Joint Verification Team would review their appeals during its meeting in Damak, Jhapa by the end of January 2004. According to Dr Thapa, the refugees will be repatriated to Bhutan as per the harmonised position on those categories. And the ministerial committee itself would be monitoring the process of repatriation. "Besides, Bhutan has agreed not to prosecute innocent family members of those falling under category 4 on their return there," he said, adding that that the two governments had also agreed to look into appeals submitted by those in category 3 (non-Bhutanese).
"This is the beginning of the end of the Bhutanese refugee problem, especially in the case of the Khudunabari camp," said Dr Thapa, who led the Nepali team. He also informed that both governments agreed to appeal to their immediate neighbour India for a "set passage" for the repatriation process. He went on, "It has prepared the road map for verification process in other camps." The two governments have agreed to begin verification process in the Sanischare camp in Morang, where almost 20,000 people are taking refuge. Dr. Thapa said that the process would not be a plain sailing though, considering the complicated nature of the problem. "But officials of the two governments will stay in constant contact and meet as and when necessary, giving top priority to the implementation of the process."  But it has meant very little to the Bhutanese refugees.  "There’s nothing new to it," said Tek Nath Rizal, leader of the Bhutanese Democratic and Human Rights Movement, talking to The Kathmandu Post over telephone."However, we are studying the current development," he said, insisting that the longstanding refugee imbroglio could be resolved only if there were meaningful dialogue between the refugee leaders and the Bhutanese monarch. "We are disappointed," reacted R B Basnet, president of Bhutan National Democratic Party. "Our longstanding demands for an international tribunal for verification process, involvement of UNHCR into the process, remain outstanding."

The Nepali Times dated Oct 24 2003 commented that " In theory, the outcome of the Nepal-Bhutan 15th ministerial meeting on Bhutani refugees this week was a major breakthrough. It marked the first time in 10 years that Thimpu agreed to repatriate refugees under three categories-bonafide Bhutanis, Bhutanis who have emigrated and Bhutanis who have committed crimes. The fourth, non-Bhutani category, will not be Bhutan' s concern. But will Bhutan commit to action what it has inked on paper? Based on the Bhutani "nod" this time, Ambassador-at-large, Bhek Bahadur Thapa believes that the first trucks carrying refugees will start moving from eastern Nepal to the Dragon Kingdom by mid-February 2004. "We asked them to include all three categories in each lot they take back, and they agreed," Thapa clarified. That won't be an easy task. Consider the crux of the 15th ministerial agreement: "the people in the three categories who voluntarily apply to return to Bhutan will be repatriated as per the harmonised position on these categories." That position, decided at the 14th round of ministerial meetings in May this year, centres on the second category of those who have emigrated-a majority of the around 100,000 refugees. Voluntary immigrants will have to reapply for citizenship and stay in Bhutan for a two-year probationary period. It won't come with guarantees because Bhutan's law denies citizenship to those who emigrated without prior approval of the government. "Remember, the repatriation has to be voluntary and the Druk goverment will interpret the legal provisions liberally as agreed between Bhutan and Nepal," Khandu Wangchuk, the Bhutani Foreign Minister told Nepali Times. Should the refugees choose to return home, Thimpu can deny them citizenship based on their laws. Given the provision in the 14th round of talks that refugees unwilling to leave can apply for Nepali citizenship, the Bhutani government has a loophole. Bureaucratic hurdles are one thing, there are added fears about the kind of reception the refugees could receive once they reach home. "Do you think the refugees are fools to tread the minefield back home when they have an option to be safe in Nepal?" asks Rakesh Chhetri, a Bhutani human rights leader in exile. NGOs have reported that people from northern Bhutan have been resettled in the homesteads the refugees left. There are no simple solutions, and diplomatese has too many ifs and buts. The fate of the refugees languishing in the camps still hangs in the balance.

Bhutan Update No. 14: Joint Verification Team Begins Its Work

Note No. 119                                                  07.02.2001
by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
S.B.Subha, Chairman of Bhutanese Representative Repatriation Committee (BRRRC) has sent the following report on the visit of the Joint Verification Team to Goldhap, Khudunabari and Timai camps.
Apparently the team is following the US proposal to call for both individual and family entity verification.
It appears that the leader of Bhutanese refugees are happy with the verification done so far.  Though it is still a long way for the refugees to return to Bhutan, the verification started by the Joint Verification Team is a good beginning.
The Joint Verification Team arrived in Goldhap camp at 9:00 AM. and first introduced with camp committee.  The camp secretary, Mr. Purna Bahadur Gurung greeted and welcomed them with traditional offering of "Khada" (traditional scarf) to the team. After that the team divided themselves and went in different directions meeting the people and talking to them. They talked with maximum people and asked generally their address in Bhutan and to the few reasons for leaving Bhutan. They entered the hut of Mr. Devi Charan Bastola, Sector C/1, hut number 78.  Mr. Bastola showed his documents.  They were so surprised to see him as a refugee with so much of valid documents of proof of Bhutanese citizen.  They asked why he has to leave Bhutan.  Then they asked about his family members and also saw the names of his family members serially and asked whether all are born in Bhutan.  Then they also entered the hut number 71 of Mr. Birkha Bahadur Gurung of Sector A/2.  He also showed his documents.  Similarly he was also asked why with so much of valid documents he has to leave Bhutan. He replied them that he was evicted by the government.
They also visited all camp level agency offices, schools and health centre.  They inquired about the further studies after completing class X.  All the people requested the Bhutanese team to resolve this problem as early as possible and take them back to Bhutan.  The team told the people that they would go back on Monday and come back again and will try to solve the problem early. Some of the members bought "Doma" (betelnut) and share with the refugees.  They were very friendly and there was complete peace in the camp.
In Khudunabari like in other camps the team dispersed in various directions and talked with the people.  One of the members Mr. Tshering Yonten met Mr. Hari Prasad Adhikari, General Secretary of Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP).  Mr. Adhikari was also National Assembly Member in Bhutan.  He was marked as politically conscious by the Bhutan government and was also the contemporary of Mr. T.N. Rizal in the assembly.  His wife and children were forcibly evicted by the government.  Mr. Tshering Yonten took the background history of Mr. Adhikari and reasons for leaving Bhutan.
Mr. Tshering Yonten also met the senior citizen and ex-mondal (Block Head) of Dalim Block under Samdrupjongkhar district, Mr. Ganga Ram Nepal.  He took Mr. Nepal's background history and reasons for leaving Bhutan.  Late Leela Maya Nepal wife of Mr. Ganga Ram Nepal was arrested and imprisoned for seventeen days and was continuously tortured by the Police and Dungpa (sub-divisional officer) till she was released.  She died on October 26, 2000 in AMDA hospital, Damak which she was suffering from the torture.  Incidentally Mr. Nepal had served as "Chaprasee" (Office Guard) under the grandfather of Mr. Tshering Yonten in 1950s.
Mr. Tshering Yonten also inquired about the camp situation and the presence of non-Bhutanese.  Mr. Adhikari and Nepal explained them about the people who were forced to sign the so-called voluntary migration form and the marriage cases. He told them that it is in the knowledge of the government.  He told them that the government is concerned with the presence of people from Assam, Bengal and Nepal.  He also talked about Mr. T.N. Rizal's health and his treatment.  Bhutan government has sanctioned for his treatment and is referred to Calcutta.  He also visited one Sarchhop (eastern Bhutan) family and talked with them.  He took the photograph of Sun Rise Academy, Khudunabari and also the photograph of king of Bhutan hung on the school wall.
He did not comment anything when people asked about the resettlement and occupation of their land by the people from east and west Bhutan.
Lastly he told the people that they will bring additional members from every district when they come for verification and also indicated the possibility of taking the help of school teachers. He also expressed his homely feeling in the camps.
The final visit was at Timai. The Joint Verification Team there also dispersed in different directions and talked with the people.  They talk with Mr. Parsu Ram Dahal and other refugees asking same questions and inquired like in other camps.
The Joint Verification Team (JVT) will be meeting on 29th January 2001 in Chandragadi for final decision of setting of office, fix the camp and date to start verification.
The overall visit of the camps was a success without any disturbance and the Bhutanese team gained confidence of security.  They freely mixed with people and gathered many information.  Hope they will carry back good impression of the people and need of early resolution.


hutanese Refugee Verification: Serious Commitment or a Time-Buying Tactic?

Jagatmani Acharya
Today more than 98,000 Bhutanese refugees live in seven camps in the eastern part of Nepal. In addition, 10,000 Bhutanese refugees live outside the camps in Nepal and another 20,000 live in India. The Bhutanese government evicted these refugees using various policies like the Citizenship Act of 1985, One Nation One People system, Marriage Act of 1988, No-Objection Certificate system, Voluntary Migration Forms (VMF) system, etc.
One of the major issues confounding these refugees is their verification as citizens of Bhutan. To address this problem, the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Ministerial Level Committee (JMLC) was formed on July 17, 1993 to find a just solution to the issue. The ninth round of bilateral negotiations held in May 2000 had remained a deadlock in the process of verification of refugees. While Nepal maintained that the verification team should interview the heads of the family (unit verification), Bhutan opted for interviews with individual members of the refugee family. After the tenth round of bilateral negotiations held in December 2001, the two parties finally agreed to form a Joint Verification Team (JVT) and the problem of unit verification that had remained a bottleneck during the ninth round was finally resolved. Consequently, the Bhutanese refugees for the first time sensed a certain degree of commitment on the part of the Bhutanese government towards facilitating an environment for their return to their cherished homes in Bhutan. Thus, the development reached between Nepal and Bhutan, to begin the field verification was appreciated and welcomed by the refugees and others concerned.
In principle, the JVT consists of five members each from Nepal and Bhutan. Sonam Tenzin heads the Bhutanese team while Sushil J. B. Rana heads the Nepalese team. The verification process starts with a briefing on the standardized blank forms provided, instructions on filling them out, photocopying, and scanning of documentary evidence, and photography (family as a whole and of individuals). Then the interviewing part is led by the Bhutanese team, which conducts the interviews while the Nepalese team merely monitors the process.
The verification itself is carried out in two phases where two separate Performa are given to the refugees in the JVT office. All the refugees are required to complete both forms inside the office. In the first form, the refugees present information about themselves and their families. In the second Performa, the refugees provide information about their address, land, etc. in Bhutan.
The JVT has agreed that the official documents issued by the Bhutanese government, such as the Bhutanese citizenship certificates, land ownership certificates, documents related to government/civil services, scholarship to the students, birth and marriage registration certificates, passports, trade licenses, receipts of voluntary labor contributions, and school registration documents, would be the basis for authentication of Bhutanese citizens from non-Bhutanese. Almost all of the refugees have some sort of documents to corroborate their nationality. But it is yet not clear if the Bhutanese government will welcome all of its citizens previously residing in southern Bhutan who fled the country primarily after the introduction of the "discriminatory" Citizenship Act of 1985. The Act in effect required anyone claiming to be a Bhutanese to have the land tax receipt of 1958. The 1988 census of Bhutan labeled those found without the document as non-nationals and caused their alleged forcible eviction.
The verification of Bhutanese refugees started on March 26, 2001. The first ten Bhutanese refugee families were brought to the JVT office in a bus from Khudunabari refugee camp in eastern Nepal. Only two out of the ten selected Bhutanese refugee families could undergo the complete verification process that day. However, today, an average of nine families are verified per day. Even then, the rate is still slow relative to the number of refugees that have fled Bhutan. Thus, such a snail-paced verification process appears to be a time-buying tactic that will eventually delay the refugee repatriation process.
In addition, the provision of filling up the forms before the interviews has led to several reservations. Questions such as who evicted you, and why did you not make an appeal to higher authority against your forced eviction are viewed as being unjustified and improper since the eviction order in most cases came directly from the Bhutanese high level authority and there was no room for appeal. Nevertheless, there are many cases where appeals were made, but failed. For instance, Tek Nath Rizal was imprisoned and finally evicted from the country for making an appeal to the King. Similarly, Aita Singh Magar, the first Bhutanese refugee interviewed by the Joint Verification Team comprising of Nepalese and Bhutanese officials at Damak, found later that the person interviewing him was none other than the man who had ordered him to leave his homeland more than a decade back.
Moreover, the JVT is a technical team set up to check the documents and interview the refugees. If there are complications, controversies, doubts etc, arising during the verification process, the JVT has to forward such issues to the secretary level and then to the JMLC for further decision. The JMLC is the final authority and since it is comprised of ministers, their decisions are likely to delay matters further. Bhutan's intransigence might further complicate matters--it might create complications for over fifty percent of refugees by rejecting the documents or by other means. If the JVT is to place the problems of even 50 percent of the refugees before the JMLC, one can imagine the volume of work and amount of delay that will be involved. Will it be possible for the ministers in the JMLC to sit for a marathon meeting for three or four months at a time to sort out the problems of over 50 percent of the refugees? Furthermore, the unstable situation in Nepalese politics and frequent changes in government will only exacerbate the situation. The replacement of the Nepalese leader in the JVT cast doubt over the JVT itself. The JMLC is bound to take another four or five years over and above the time it will take to announce the result. Who knows? The whole process can rebound into unknown rounds of meetings of the JMLC in the future.
It was only in 1993 that both Nepal and Bhutan agreed to categorize the refugees into four types, namely, 1) bonafide Bhutanese if they have been evicted forcefully; 2) Bhutanese who have emigrated; 3) non-Bhutanese people; and 4) Bhutanese who have committed criminal acts. The consequent differences in the positions of Nepal and Bhutan and heavy criticism from the refugee community itself took seven more years for the two parties to come to a common agreeable point.
There are many more hurdles for the refugees in the future. The joint press release of the JMLC does not spell out a word about the contentious issue of categorization. The National Assembly of Bhutan in its last session of July 2000 demanded that the Royal government should not admit responsibility for those refugees who supposedly signed the so-called voluntary migration forms or VMF (for Bhutanese who emigrated). It further demanded that the Royal government should bring to court all those individuals who have committed criminal acts or have written and spoken against the government. Sixty percent of the camps' population has signed under duress the so-called VMF.
To make matters worse, UNHCR, which is responsible for the relief and protection of the refugees, has no role in this process. Bhutanese refugee leaders and human rights groups have been demanding the involvement of a third party -- in this case, the UNHCR. The UNHCR at the most is expected to provide inputs and assistance only on technical issues like logistic support and peripheral information. However, both governments have not responded to such demands yet.
As time passes, the optimism among the refugees is bound to fade. The lengthy process of verification and the lack of commitment on the part of the Bhutanese government to take back all the refugees identified as its citizens raise questions about the entire exercise. Given the past record of accomplishment, people fear that the entire process might turn into a fiasco anytime soon.
The resettlement of the northern Bhutanese on the land that belongs to the refugees continues while Bhutan is interviewing refugees for repatriation. If the resettlement of the Northern Bhutanese does not cease, where will the refugees go? The result of verification is to be announced only after the completion of the endorsement of all the refugees. The refugees who have already completed their interviews with the JVT will not know their status until the end of the entire verification process. The verification process thus seems to be an unrealistic and only a time-buying tactic of the government of Bhutan. If the verification process continues at this pace, it will take at least six years to complete the entire process, while developing additional complications along the way.
Jagatmani Acharya is a research associate of the Kathmandu-based South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR),
For further information please contact: South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), GPO Box 12855, Kathmandu, Nepal, ph (977-1) 541-026; Fax. (977-1) 527-852; e-mail: jagat@safhr. org ; www. safhr. org 
Title: 15th MJC meeting agree on a number of issues

Posted on: October 23, 2003.
Published by: Kuensel.

The 15th ministerial joint committee (MJC) meeting between Nepal and Bhutan on the refugee issue concluded yesterday in Thimphu.

Described as a ‘historic’ and major breakthrough, the meeting ended on a happy note with both the sides agreeing on a number of issues.

It was agreed that the appeals submitted by the people in Category 3 would be reviewed by the joint verification team (JVT) by the end of January 2004. People falling under Category 3 are non-Bhutanese who are claiming to be Bhutanese

It was also agreed that people falling under category 4 (people who have committed crimes against the people and country of Bhutan) would be allowed to return and given a chance to prove their innocence in a court of law. Their family members will not be prosecuted on their return to Bhutan.

It was also agreed that people in category one (people who claim they were forcefully evicted from the country), two (people who emigrated on their own free will), and four who have applied to return to Bhutan will be repatriated as ‘per the harmonized position on these categories.’ Those people in Category 2 who do not want to return to Bhutan will be allowed to apply for the Nepali citizenship.

The terms and procedures for repatriation, reapplication and application for Bhutan and Nepal will be as prescribed by laws of the two countries.

The 15th MJC has agreed to implement the outcome of the meeting with the JVT deciding to meet in Damak, Jhapa, in the last week of November this year.

The MJC has also selected Sanischare as the next camp for verification and directed the JVT to explore ways and means of expediting the verification process in the remaining camps.
Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk said that the meeting came to a fruitful conclusion and that it was a major step forward for both the countries.

The Nepalese foreign minister said that the MJC meeting was the ‘end of talk and the beginning of action.’

By Kinley Y Dorji


Nepal Bhutan Joint Verification Team
By madurai collective 09/06/2002 At 21:37

The Nepal Bhutan joint verification teams had left for their capitals on December 2001 to appraise their governments on the findings of the verified refugees of the Khudunabari camp.

With the completion of the verification of a camp and the Ministerial Joint Committee Meeting of HMG Nepal and Bhutan at a distant have raised suspicion, hopelessness and frustration in the refugee community. The Ministerial talk remains as a dream of the refugees that may never be realized. The future of the refugees remain hanging in the congested camps of thatched roofed and bamboo made huts.

Refugee population at a glance

Camps 7: Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Beld.II-Ext., Sanischare
Morang, Khudunabri, Goldhap, Timai
Male :51473
Female: 49581
Total Jhapa: 1,01,054

Present Situation

Mr. Madhav Kumar Nepal, General Secretary of CPN-UML and the leader of main opposition party at the House of Representatives left for four days visit to Bhutan on 22nd April, 2002 leading a six member delegation. The Rising Nepal, April 23, 2002 states “ that his visit to Bhutan would focus on seeking on amicable solution to the long festering Bhutanese Refugee problem as early as possible and thrashing out bilateral issues for mutual benefit”.

The Kathmandu Post April 26, 2002 states that the “Opposition leader returns with new questions over refugee stalemate”. The Bhutanese government seems to have used the same strategy that has been implemented on the visit of the then Chairperson of UNHCR, Madame Sadako Ogata in May. Mr. Nepal seems to be on the impression that the Bhutanese government is ready for talks but “the refugee impasse cannot be resolved unless there is an atmosphere of trust between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan and between the latter and the refugees” Contradicting to Mr. Nepal’s impression, Bhutanese officials “told the delegation that they were still processing and reconciling the findings of the verification of the refugees in the Khudunabari camp where over 12000 refugees have already been verified” The Bhutanese government also blamed the refugee leaders for “ cajoling, threatening and driving out the common Lhotshampas for their own vested interest”. The refugee leaders have never left
Bhutan as leaders but have taken up the leadership as a moral responsibility to guide and help the innocent victims of ethnic cleansing.

Bhutan is afraid of India’s mediation, the largest and the oldest democratic nation. Mr. Panday, one of the delegates revealed “ They are open to Indian mediation but they want honest and impartial arbitration” (Kathmandu Post, April 26, 2002). Kuensel, the only news paper and the mouth piece of the Royal government of Bhutan, April 27, 2002 states that the “Bhutan- Nepal relations must go beyond refugee problem”. Mr. Nepal proposed to expand the relation” at people to people, institution to institution, organization to organization levels, at the intellectual and the boarder political levels”. Bhutan is a country in which the Human Right activists are termed as antinational or terrorist and does not have a constitution. There are no democratic organizations Trade Unions etc. that carry the aspiration of people of all levels. The intellectuals, leaders etc. are all based on the person’s ability to be the stooges of the persons in the authority. There are no democratically elected personalities leading the country.

The Bhutanese government has said they have initiated the talks at the levels i.e with the Ex.-foreign minister of Nepal, Mr. Chakra Prasad Bastolla and with the delegation lead by Mr. Madhav Kumar Nepal. I would like to draw the attention of the government of Bhutan to initiate the same process by creating an atmosphere for the dialogue with the dissident leaders, lead by Mr. T. N. Rizal, to reach an amicable solution to the crisis so that we live peacefully forever.

updates about the Bhutanese Refugee Joint Verification Process are prepared by the PFHRB. Any comments or questions should be emailed to or Tele: - 00977-23-40824.

Update about the Bhutanese Refugee Crisis prepared by the PFHRB. Any comments or questions should be emailed to or Tele: - 00977-23-40824.

Though we named it as weekly update but due to break in Verification process we prepare it on the issue basic till the new camp for verification will be started.



General Secretary, PFHRB.


Repatriation or resettlement, Resolving the Lhotshampa dilemma   June 2007

The stagnating Lhotshampa refugee issue has suddenly seen movement in the form of the American government's promise to resettle more than half of the refugees. But what does this mean to the goal of repatriation to Bhutan? And is Thimpu being given an easy exit after the cruelty is has shown to the Lhotshampa? After initial bewilderment, most refugees seem to be opting for resettlement, hoping to keep the fight for repatriation alive in the diaspora.
It is eight o’clock on a tepid mid-April morning in Khundunabari, one of the seven refugee camps in the southeastern Nepal districts of Jhapa and Morang that are home to an estimated 106,000 Bhutani refugees. A few hundred people are gathered in the open grounds near the camp’s settlement of thatched-roof huts. The atmosphere is festive. A handful of large tents have been set up in the commons. Soon, the people here will begin to form long lines, waiting to enter these tents to identify themselves and be counted as refugees. Despite their presence in the camps for a full decade and a half, these people have never been granted that crucial identity marker.
This is the second day of the refugee census exercise in Khundunabari camp. The undertaking is being jointly overseen by Nepal’s Home Ministry and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Khundunabari was the last camp to be surveyed. Among other things, the completion of the census will allow UNHCR, at long last, to issue each refugee an identity card declaring his or her status.
The census is not all that has not taken place in these camps over the past 17 years. During that time, refugee families living here have seen no progress in their efforts to return to their homeland. They have suffered from the instability of the Nepali state, and have seen the Bhutani government run circles around team after negotiating team from Kathmandu. For 17 years, these refugees have lived on aid-agency rations in crowded camps in the hot Nepali plains; one, sometimes two families per hut; their children educated for free until high school but unable to work legally thereafter. For 17 years, frustration has been mounting.
October 2006 saw the first real movement in response to the refugee crisis – along humanitarian if not political lines. At a UNHCR conference in Geneva, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs Ellen Sauerbrey announced that her government was willing to resettle up to 60,000 Bhutani refugees. Since then, the other member countries of the Core Group on Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal – Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway – have expressed willingness to take in some refugees, and Nepal’s new foreign minister announced in late May that she had commitments for a total of 85,000. In April, a US State Department team visiting Nepal announced that 60,000 – a number that the US hopes to resettle over the coming five to six years – should not be considered a ceiling on the number of Bhutani refugees the country would be willing to accept.
17 long yearsBetween 1990 and 1992, 75,000 Bhutani citizens, most of them Lhotshampa (Nepali-speakers from south Bhutan), were forced out of the country. Bhutan’s minorities had suffered state-led persecution in the form of Bhutan’s ‘One Nation, One People’ policy of Ngalung cultural hegemony and exclusion under the country’s 1985 Citizenship Act. This policy, implemented under the command of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, prompted Lhotshampa resistance before culminating in 1991 in wide-scale evictions, confiscation of citizenship cards, closure of schools in southern Bhutan, dismissal of Lhotshampa government employees, and the razing of homes.
As close to a thousand refugees a month began to enter Assam and West Bengal, seeking to set up camps in border towns, Indian authorities, seemingly unwilling to permit anything that would cause King Jigme discomfort, herded them into trucks and drove them to the Nepali border town of Kakarbhitta. In Nepal, in February 1992, the influx of refugees to the original camp on the floodplains of the Mai River reached 10,000 per month. Reprieve came in the form of UNHCR, which began assistance to the refugees at the request of the Kathmandu government. The refugee population was eventually moved to camps built in Beldangi, Khundunabari, Timai, Goldhap and Sanischare in Jhapa and Morang districts. According to Human Rights Watch, in addition to the 106,000 or so refugees currently in the camps, there are up to 15,000 more in Nepal who are not registered with the Nepal government, as well as up to 30,000 unregistered refugees in India.
Since 1993, Kathmandu and Thimphu have engaged in 15 rounds of ministerial-level talks (a 16th round, slated for late last year, never took place). While negotiations have been unsuccessful in addressing the concerns of the refugee population, even these have been halted since 2003, when a team from Thimphu confronted an angry crowd in Khundunabari camp. This incident seems to have provided an excuse for not returning. The Bhutani side has been continuously successful in stonewalling and duping Nepali delegations. One Nepali team was even convinced to agree to a nonsensical categorisation scheme, in which refugees would be classified according to whether they were ‘genuine’ Bhutani citizens forcefully evicted; Bhutanis who had left Bhutan voluntarily (which, under Bhutani law, results in loss of citizenship); non-Bhutani; or Bhutani criminals.
India, the only obvious lever of diplomatic pressure on its small, introverted neighbour, has been doggedly unwilling to interfere. While some cite New Delhi’s need for quid pro quo from Thimphu with regards to insurgent groups in Assam that seek to use Bhutan’s borderlands as safe havens, others point to its economic interests in Bhutani hydropower, or to an unwillingness to rock the boat in what is regarded as a sensitive Himalayan frontier. Whatever the reason, the Indian position has been unequivocal, and New Delhi continues to insist that the refugee issue is a bilateral one of concern only to Nepal and Bhutan. Indian authorities also continue to arrest Bhutani refugees trying to return to their country. What has been lacking in this position is a level of humanitarian sympathy for the second-largest group of refugees in the Subcontinent, barring the Afghans in Pakistan.
Until recently, the refugee leadership had not expressed a desire for any ‘durable solution’ except repatriation to Bhutan. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, some began to speak of the need to “open all options” to the refugees – ie, to give the population in the camps a choice between the three ‘durable solutions’ of repatriation to Bhutan, local integration in Nepal, or resettlement to a third country.
Since the Core Group’s creation in 2006, talks sought with Thimphu by representatives of those countries convinced many diplomats that Bhutan was not inclined to accept back any section of the refugee population in the near future. In Kathmandu, senior Community Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) leader K P Oli had come to a similar conclusion. After a new government made him foreign minister in the spring of 2006, Oli sought to bring 16 years of fruitless negotiations with Bhutan to a definitive conclusion.
It was with the backing of the Core Group countries that the Kathmandu government finally opened up to the idea of third-country resettlement, abandoning its ‘repatriation only’ stand. There is now a general agreement among all working on Lhotshampa refugee affairs that the refugees cannot be held hostage to the uncertain outcome of bilateral talks. Bhutan, meanwhile, has welcomed the offers of resettlement to a population it continues to deny is its own. Following the visit to Thimphu of the US ambassador to India this April, Bhutani Prime Minister Khandu Wangchuk told the press, “I expressed [to Ambassador David Mulford] our deep appreciation of their decision to resettle the people.”
Who wants to go?
Despite being energised by the fact that some movement is finally taking place with regards to the refugee issue – indeed, the month of May saw a sudden flurry of activity in Kathmandu, including the arrival of UNHCR chief António Guterres – the refugees are divided on how to approach the resettlement offers. While a majority would want to accept the promised evacuation to a Western country, some maintain that all they want is to return home. Some of the ambivalence among refugees with regards to resettlement is due to an apprehension with regard to the unknown among the elderly. But there also seems to be a fair degree of political intimidation going on, which keeps many refugees from being open about their choice of resettlement. Indeed, a small segment opposes resettlement not only for itself, but also for others. A lack of information on the modalities and extent of resettlement has caused a fair amount of confusion, and this has been stoked by those vehemently opposed to the option. UNHCR was only just beginning its first official information campaign on resettlement as Himal went to press.
Karna Bahadur Saukar, an elderly man of Beldangi I, says that he is not prepared to resettle in the West. “We don’t know the soil of that place. We don’t know the water, the air. We want to go back to Bhutan. If we can’t do that, we would rather stay here in Nepal.” Phurba Tamang, in his early 20s, says, “We are not Nepali. We are Bhutanese.” According to this view, it is either Bhutan or nothing: resettlement is out of the question.
Others worry how they will be treated in the countries offering resettlement. Teenager Buddhiman Rang Rai says he has heard that many Vietnamese refugees resettled to the United States have not received the all-important ‘green card’. Some suspect that Western countries want them only as cheap labour, while others feel that only the most capable should resettle, and then send money back to their families in the camps. D B Khawaas, a Beldangi resident in his late 20s, worries that he would not be able to care for his old parents and young children if everyone were to move. Clearly, information is lacking on the human-security aspects that would have to be guaranteed in any resettlement exercise. Arjun Pradhan, a journalist with the camp-published Bhutan Jagaran newspaper, says that some refugees are worried that Western countries may house them in conditions worse than they know here – perhaps even in other refugee camps. 
Muna Giri, a young woman from Beldangi II who organises a women’s discussion group in a children’s library in the camp, laughs as she recounts some of the rumours that are circulating among the camp population: “They say that in America, if you get very sick they give you an injection and put you to sleep for good.” Krishna Maya Basnet, a feisty 79-year-old, chimes in: “They say that we’ll be made into fish feed. Well, let us be fish feed rather than stay here, where we don’t have firewood to feed ourselves!” In late May, it was heard that fake emails were circulating in the camps in which some of the refugees already resettled in the US and Canada (an initial ‘test group’ of 18 refugees were resettled last autumn) were said to be complaining of conditions in the resettlement countries and opposing resettlement.
Manoj Kumar Rai, the young and energetic camp secretary of Khundunabari camp, says that those currently opting not to resettle generally fall into three categories: the elderly; those who have already taken Nepali citizenship and so are out of the running; and young “school dropouts”, whom anti-resettlement die-hards have convinced that they do not have the skills required to survive abroad.
Humanitarian v political
Some of the most prominent refugee leaders say they do not consider third-country resettlement to be a solution to what they see as the most pressing issue facing the refugee community. Thinley Penjore, head of the Druk National Congress, a party functioning in exile, says that the refugee situation is “first and foremost a political problem. Our expulsion is not and must not be painted as merely an ethnic, cultural or racial problem. And our troubles today cannot be seen as a humanitarian problem alone.” As such, the solution to the refugee problem is political change in Bhutan – and that is a fight that must be fought within Bhutan itself. Penjore is positive about the current democratisation process in Bhutan and feels that, though it is taking place on the terms of the Druk monarchy, it is bound to open up space for greater political activity.
While Penjore says he believes that refugees who want to resettle to third countries should do so, he worries that resettlement, as a humanitarian solution, does not address the political problem. He and others fear that resettlement could sap energy from activism for repatriation, and also reduce the numbers fighting for democratisation should the door back to Bhutan be opened.
Frustrated with the prioritisation of the humanitarian cause, Tek Nath Rizal, chairman of the Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee and long the public face of the Bhutani movement for repatriation, retorts: “Don’t tell me about human rights. Is not the protection of your property a human right? Is not return to the land of your birth, the country of which you are a citizen, a human right?” Though Rizal, like others, had rejected resettlement in the wake of the offers last autumn, he too no longer publicly opposes it.
For many of those living in the camps, however, the most critical issue is indeed the humanitarian rather than the political. Rupa Monger, a mother of three from Khundunabari, says that life in the camps has been getting more and more difficult. Referring to the so-called bio-briquettes provided by UNHCR since last year, she says: “They cut our kerosene rations and have given us coal instead. To start a fire you need more firewood than coal, but we are not allowed to collect firewood. The funds for higher education have been cut. We were being told to stand on our own feet, but we are not allowed to work. We were worried sick. Now, with the resettlement offers, we have hope.”
That hope has not come cheaply, however. While Rupa had long hoped to return to her country, she now says, “Bhutan won; I have lost to Bhutan.” Similarly, Pingala Dhital says she feels as though her life has been “put on hold”, and that she can no longer live in hope of a political settlement. “I must think about my child, who doesn’t know Bhutan, and who mustn’t remain stateless,” she says.
UNHCR representative in Nepal Abraham Abraham feels strongly that the refugees should be given the option of ending their camp stay as soon as possible. “Repatriation will happen when the time and the situation are conducive to it,” he says. “Until that time, refugees need not be subjected to the harsh conditions in the camps. This is a freedom they have – a choice, an option.” Abraham also warns that resettlement must be taken up while it is still being held out. “Resettlement is not something that is on offer for everyone forever. It is not an easy thing to get countries to agree to. And if the resettlement option does not remain, what other viable option do we have?”
The seeming impossibility of repatriation to Bhutan is what is getting many refugees to fall on the side of resettlement. Ever since the conclusion of the first survey of the infamous Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team – which divided the refugee population into the four categories of Thimphu’s creation – in Khundunabari camp in 2003, the Thimphu regime’s attitude has consistently been one of evasion or prevarication on matters of repatriation. Only 2.6 percent of the total 12,000 surveyed in Khundunabari were identified as “genuine Bhutanese”, and even these were offered return to Bhutan under denigrating and exploitative conditions. Even so, no repatriation has taken place to date.
Long-time refugee leader Ratan Gazmere says that though most refugees would like to return to Bhutan, next to nobody would opt to do so under current circumstances. “The situation does not exist in Bhutan for a safe and dignified return,” he says. “We must work towards the creation of such a situation, and this is where the international community must help us.”
Donor fatigue
If many Bhutani refugees seem to be in favour of third-country resettlement today, that change in mindset only came about recently. Father Varkey Perekkatt, head of both the Jesuit Refugee Services in Nepal and the INGO Caritas’s Bhutanese Refugee Education Programme, says: “Until two years ago, I’d say 80 percent of the population would have opted to wait for repatriation.” Now, he says, many of those people will opt to leave. A major reason for the shift, explains Perekkatt, is the fact that there has been no progress on the repatriation front since 22 December 2003, when the Khundunabari findings of the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team were announced and the Bhutani delegates departed, never to return.
In the intervening three years, a number of significant developments have taken place. Most important has been a shift in UNHCR policy, brought about by the organisation’s increasing lack of resources. “Given this,” Perekkatt says, “there has been much depression, disappointment and hopelessness over the past few years.” Against this backdrop, suddenly and unexpectedly came the resettlement offer from the US.
Graeme Lade, the Australian ambassador to Nepal and current chair of the Core Group in Kathmandu, cites two reasons why the resettlement offers were made at this time. “First, the offers have been made on humanitarian grounds,” he explains. “These refugees have spent a long period of time living in a camp situation, and this gives rise to various concerns. The second reason is basic donor fatigue.” UNHCR representative Abraham corroborates this: “Between 15 and 18 million dollars is spent on the camps annually. It’s just not sustainable.”
Indeed, over the past few years the refugees have seen cuts in the provision of, among other things, cooking fuel, food and medical services. In December 2006, the World Food Programme (WFP), which provides most of the food rations for the camps, warned that it had not yet received any contributions towards the next two years of its Bhutani-refugee operations. Though aid activities in the camps have been under increasing financial stress over the past decade and a half, the lack of funding has been increasingly palpable over the last few years. All of the major donors to the camps are also members of the Core Group on Bhutanese Refugees, with the exception of Japan. These are also the countries that are currently offering to resettle the refugees, indicating a strong correlation between resettlement and ‘donor fatigue’.
Camp breakdown
If the refugee population has been made desperate by cuts and uncertainty in support, an increase in threats and intimidation has made life in the camps that much worse. This makes camp residents all the more willing to relocate, at which point they are once again targeted by radicalised youth who claim to oppose resettlement. Former camp management committee member Laxmi Adhikari was surrounded and attacked near her home in Khundunabari on 10 November last year by a gang of young camp residents accusing her of wanting to "go to America". Similarly, Hari Adhikari ‘Bangaley’, camp secretary at Beldangi II and head of the new NGO Bhutanese Refugee Durable Solutions Coordination Committee, no longer lives in the camps after an attack made on him in August 2006. He now commutes to work from the town of Damak. “We have no technical support here to maintain security,” he says. “Sometimes, the police don’t arrive to help us. What should be small incidents quickly become big incidents.”
Adhikari says that intimidation has been on the rise since 2005. “These young people have seen the trajectory of Nepal’s Maoists, and how nothing seemed to stop them after they took up the gun.” Indeed, at various times during the ten-year conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Nepali state, Maoist cadre treated the refugee camps in Jhapa and Morang as safe havens, forcing camp residents to feed and house them, and making use of camp medical facilities. Before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the CPN (Maoist) and the Seven Party Alliance in Kathmandu last autumn, groups of camp youth had also been taken by the Maoists for indoctrination and arms training. The Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist), founded in early 2003, is believed to have grown out of this socialisation.
Sexual and gender-based violence has been a particular problem in these crowded and mostly unguarded settlements. UNHCR itself woke up to the issue when, in 2002, 18 cases of sexual abuse were discovered to have been perpetrated by people paid by the aid agency and its partner organisations. Tension has also been increasing between the camp populations and the surrounding communities. The most commonly cited example of this souring is the fight that broke out between refugees and locals in Morang District on 22 February this year. The refugees, reportedly frustrated by using the UNHCR-supplied bio-briquettes, had gone to the community forest near Sanischare camp in search of firewood. The ensuing fight resulted in the death of Gopal Khadka, a refugee from Sanischare.
“The conditions in the camps are worsening, and militancy is so much on the rise that it would be a crime to ask anyone to remain there even a year longer,” says Hari Adhikari ‘Bangaley’. Meanwhile, Ratan Gazmere, who is chief coordinator of the Association of Human Rights Activists (AHURA), Bhutan, worries that an increase in violence in the camps may affect chances of resettlement, as the refugees gain an image as a violent bunch, something they have thus far avoided. The increase in “violence and militancy” has been gradual, says Abraham Abraham, and is not showing any signs of abating. “The longer the refugees stay in the camps,” he notes, “the more frustration will build – the greater the social ills, the greater the animosity. As numbers start leaving, hopefully the social problems will decline.”
Many also hope that, with the start of mass information campaigns, intimidation that has found fuel in the confusion surrounding resettlement will decrease. At the end of May, UNHCR began distributing a pamphlet in the camps that seeks to answer questions refugees may have about the choice they face. It explains, among other things, that UNHCR will chose countries to which to refer individual refugees interested in resettlement on the basis of its assessment of their needs; that families will be resettled together; that resettlement avails refugees of permanent residency of the host country and eventually, if the refugees choose, its citizenship; and that refugees will be given assistance until assimilated in the country of resettlement. The US will also soon step up its own information campaign (a fact sheet on resettlement has already been distributed in the camps). Washington, DC will soon set up an Overseas Processing Entity, which will begin processing cases referred to it by UNHCR in September. On a recent visit to Kathmandu, Janice Belz, a high-level official with the US State Department’s refugee office, said that the first group of refugees opting for resettlement should be able to leave for the US by the beginning of 2008.
A global movement
At this point, ‘opening all options’ for the Bhutani refugees – the rhetoric used by refugee leaders and foreign diplomats alike – ultimately boils down to little more than the opening of the option of resettlement. After 17 years, any pressure that has been applied to Thimphu has come to nought. Even as the international community prepares the groundwork to wipe its hands clean of the Bhutani refugee issue, there is the lingering sense that ‘justice’ has not been delivered to this group of people.
With Bhutan less than a hundred miles from the camps, across Indian territory, some refugee leaders are saddened by the prospect of refugees leaving a place from which Bhutan is physically so close. “From where we are now, we can sneak into Bhutan if need be, and speak to people there,” says Thinley Penjore. “From afar, we will only be able to contact those people with access to online media. Not many people have this access, and many have been kept uneducated.”
Others point out that, in a few year’s time, there will no longer be a 100,000-strong population in the camps, functioning as a prod to the international conscience. At that time, whatever conviction there has been among the international community to resolve the refugee issue will disappear. As such, an injustice carried out by the Thimphu regime on a massive scale will have been excused.
But there are others who say that resettlement will in fact energise a refugee movement that has long stagnated. “We can do nothing sitting here in the camps,” complains camp secretary Manoj Rai. “We must give our movement a global scale.” A younger generation of refugees, he says, understands the power of information technology and the ways in which it is possible for an educated population across the globe to coordinate and mobilise effectively. Concurs one former Nepal foreign-ministry official: “Why do they not want to leave the camps? Because Jhapa is close to Bhutan? But they have been unable to reach Bhutan in 16 years. Maybe they will find Thimphu closer from elsewhere.”
Whether or not the Bhutani refugees can hope to galvanise as much support, the Tibetan movement stands as an example of the kind of solidarity that can be found in the West for the cause of an unjustly displaced people. “The world doesn’t know about the Bhutanese refugees. Outreach to the populace of a powerful democratic country could be very useful,” says Kimberly Robertson, who looks after durable solutions for UNHCR’s Nepal operation. Hari Adhikari ‘Bangaley’ says that experience has shown that a return to Bhutan cannot be achieved through reliance on the Nepal government alone. “If we have our people in Geneva, New York, London, we can lobby there,” he says. “Mechanisms unused until now can be utilised.”
If the refugees have been disadvantaged due to their geographical placement, they have been even more so for lack of funds. “Let them go. Let them be educated, earn and live well, and let them spend on their movement,” says the former Nepal foreign-ministry official, “Right now, refugees who seek to be heard often can’t scrape together enough money for a trip to Kathmandu.” Manoj Rai echoes these sentiments. “Our main problem in our efforts to pressure Thimphu is financial,” he says. “If our people resettle, they will be able to work. For ten years, they may struggle themselves. But after that, they will fund a movement in Bhutan.”
Will the Bhutani identity remain strong enough among the refugees to maintain a movement after a second displacement? D N S Dhakal, general-secretary of the Bhutan National Democratic Party, insists that the refugees will not disappear into a wider Nepali-speaking diaspora. Not only is the Bhutani identity distinct, he says, but, as has been seen with other groups, “Feelings for nationality become stronger when people become economically strong.”
The Bhutani refugees have held out hope for long enough that the international community – and, most importantly, India – would pressure Bhutan to allow their peaceful repatriation. With resettlement, perhaps they will be able to finally take the fate of their movement into their own hands. Perhaps it will end not only their dependency on international aid, but also their reliance on others for a movement for change back home.
There are refugees who will remain in the camps, choosing not to leave until they can do so for their own country. The success of a Bhutani movement overseas notwithstanding, the desires of this group of refugees must not be forgotten. It seems, however, that a large number will indeed opt to leave the camps in Jhapa and Morang for overseas resettlement. They will leave looking forward to opportunities and freedoms they have lived without for a decade and a half – seeking employment, and hoping for better futures for their children. The actions of this new diaspora, created out of a humanitarian response in the face of a grave injustice, will be worth watching in the decades to come.

Back in Bhutan
As one group of southern Bhutanis contemplate whether or not to move out of the refugee camps in Nepal, by all accounts those who remain in Bhutan continue to suffer constant discrimination and threats to their status as citizens. The plight of Bhutan’s minorities indicates that much needs to change in the country before a safe and dignified return is possible for the exiled Lhotshampa. But perhaps more importantly, ongoing discrimination within Bhutan demands that whatever leverage possible be used in order to ensure the safety of an increasingly insecure population within the country. The international community must be on high alert: it must work to make Bhutan recognise its obligations towards its minorities, and it must be quick to recognise a second eviction if and as it begins to occur.
Following the mass evictions of the early 1990s, the Thimphu government required Bhutani citizens to obtain No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from the police, to confirm that they are not involved in any ‘anti-national activity’. NOCs are required for admission in schools, employment in the civil service, the right to sell cash crops, the right to buy and sell land, to obtain business licenses, and for the issuance of passports. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch in mid-May, “Being denied an NOC deprives a person of almost all means of earning a living.” Accusations of being ‘anti-nationals’ fall easily on the Lhotshampa, in particular those with even distant relatives in the refugee camps in Nepal. NOCs are accordingly difficult to obtain.
Bhutan’s Nepali-speakers continue to be discriminated against under the 1985 Citizenship Act. That discrimination has recently become more acute, as many Lhotshampa who had previously held citizenship cards have been denied new ones following the 2005 census, which classified 13 percent of those who reside in Bhutan as non-nationals – a total of 80,000 people. It is commonly believed that this figure includes many Lhotshampa. In mid-May, it was reported on a refugee-run news portal that 70,000 Lhotshampa were denied their adult franchise in the ‘mock elections’ that took place in Bhutan this past April as a part of the new King Jigme Khesar’s inherited democratisation project.
“All the root causes of the mass eviction of the early 1990s remain,” says a former Nepal foreign-ministry official. Bill Frelick, director of the Refugee Policy Program at Human Rights Watch, concurs: “Things have not changed. Furthermore, there are disturbing parallels between the census of 1988 and the census of 2005.” At the same time, refugee leader Ratan Gazmere cautions that any future eviction will undoubtedly be so cleverly conducted that the world may not even notice. Indeed, Human Rights Watch’s recent report quotes one Lhotshampa living in Bhutan as saying, “They don’t ask me to leave, but they make me so miserable, I will be forced to leave. I have no identification, so I cannot do anything, go anywhere, get any job.”
UNHCR-Nepal head Abraham Abraham says he believes a second eviction to be unlikely, given that “Bhutan is receiving messages from all directions that this must not take place.” His boss, UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres, said in Kathmandu in late May, “I have deep conviction, and am sincerely hopeful, that such a tragedy will not occur.”
Discrimination and denationalisation should not need to amount to expulsion, however, for the international community to be on the alert. Pressure must be maintained on Bhutan – by recalcitrant India in particular – to amend its citizenship laws, abolish the NOCs, and discontinue all discrimination against Nepali-speakers. In order to make sure that the suffering of the refugees has not been entirely in vain, it is imperative that Thimphu be made to realise that it must respect the political, social, economic and cultural rights of all of its people.
 ~Himali Dixit is the assistant editor of the Himal Southasain.


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