Bhutanese refugees in Nepal

Source: ICMC Europe, Welcome to Europe! A comprehensive guide to resettlement, 2013

Since 1991, approximately 18% of the Bhutanese population has fled the country (108,000 refugees), mainly to Nepal and India. The vast majority of these refugees are Lhotshampa, a Hindu population of ethnic Nepali descent. In the mid-1980s, the Nepalese government passed citizenship laws that provided a legal basis for declaring many Lhotshampa to be ‘non-nationals.’ Escalating discrimination throughout the 1980s and early 1990s led to the largescale movement of Lhotshampa refugees. As refugees departed, the government resettled ‘citizens’ from other parts of the country onto their lands, and those Lhotshampa that remained in Nepal continued to suffer routine discrimination, arbitrary detention and restricted access to education and employment.

Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention and has no national refugee legislation. However, the Nepalese government recognises Bhutanese refugees living in camps on a prima facie basis, and UNHCR conducts Refugee Status Determination (RSD) for the far smaller numbers living in urban settings. Although camp-based refugees are not allowed to leave the camps and are not granted work permits, many find informal employment. The Nepalese government considers Bhutanese refugees in urban settings to be illegal residents, and they are liable to pay fines or be detained as overstayers. Local integration is therefore not a viable solution for either camp-based refugees or those living in urban settings.

In 2001, the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments collaborated on a pilot screening exercise of Bhutanese refugees in a single camp (Khudunabari) without the involvement of UNHCR or other agencies. Just over 12,000 refugees were screened - 75% were deemed eligible to return to Bhutan, while 25% were found to be ‘non-Bhutanese’ with no right of appeal. Specific conditions were applied to the return of the 75% deemed eligible, which for the majority meant re-applying for Bhutanese citizenship under the challenging terms of the discriminatory 1985 citizenship legislation, after a 2-year probationary period spent in a closed camp in Bhutan. Where this condition was not applied, returning Bhutanese refugees would have no claim to their previous land or property. Voluntary repatriation is therefore not viable for many Bhutanese refugees, and resettlement remains the only durable solution realistically available for the vast majority of this population.

Since 2007, 8 resettlement countries – Australia (3,837), Canada (5,296), Denmark (724), the Netherlands (326), New Zealand (710), Norway (546), the United Kingdom (257) and the United States (63,400) – have together resettled over 75,000 Bhutanese refugees from the camps in Nepal. During this period, the number of camps has been reduced from seven to two. In 2013, UNHCR will facilitate the resettlement of up to 15,000 refugees.67 In March 2013, Canada announced that they would select 1,000 Bhutanese refugees over two years. For 2014, UNHCR is planning to submit 7,240 Bhutanese refugees for resettlement from Nepal.69 In January 2014, the Bhutanese refugee population in Nepal was estimated to be 30,977 individuals. For 2014, Bhutanese refugees no longer figure on the list of UNHCR priority situations. However, by the end of 2014, there will remain around 18-19,000 refugees for whom a durable solution must be found.

Photo: Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. © J. Rae/UNHCR