Why are Bhutanese refugees coming from Nepal?

I've provided a timeline of events below as a short answer to a complicated question. For readers interested in learning more, I’ve listed sources that I found useful on the Links to Learn more page.
Map showing India, Nepal, and Bhutan
  • Late 1800s: A group of people living in modern-day southern Nepal migrated to the south of Bhutan. (There are also sources that say people have been migrating from Nepal to Bhutan since the 1600s.) In general, this group speaks Nepali and practices Hinduism, but it is important to note that there is much linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity in this community that is not captured by this generalization.
  • 1958: Members of this group, often called the Lhotsampa, received Bhutanese citizenship. 
  • 1985: The Bhutanese government revoked the Lhotsampa's citizenship unless individuals met two conditions: First, they had to have tax receipts showing that they'd been in the country since 1958. Second, they had to have been counted in the census.  
  • 1988: Bhutan's One Nation One People policy stipulated that only one language, Dzongkha, and one style of dress and social etiquette (driglam namza), that of the Buddhist Ngalong ruling class, is allowed. As a result, many Lhotsampa lost their citizenship, and the use of their language, Nepali, became outlawed in schools. Some Lhotsampa were also fired from their jobs and harassed.
  • Late 1980s-Early 1990s: The community response included attempts both to accommodate and protest. The village elders tried to accommodate the citizenship law by issuing certification to vouch for the residency of members of their community who had not saved their tax receipts but who had been in Bhutan since 1958. The Bhutanese government responded by imprisoning these village elders, beating them, and requiring them to fill out a “voluntary migration form” while in prison. On this form, they agreed to leave after they were released from prison, and after their release, they complied with this request. Other members of the community chose to protest. The Bhutanese government targeted the community, and it came under military rule. There are reports of arrests, rape and torture. Schools, hospitals, businesses, and post offices in the south were forced to close, and many lost their jobs. After this, much of the community began leaving en-masse in 1990 and 1991.
  • Early 1990s: As the ancestral home of this group is Nepal, the community began to move in that direction. This meant passing through India. While some stayed in India, for a variety of reasons the Indian government encouraged the move to Nepal and did not allow resettlement. However, it is important to note that the Bhutanese population in India is significant, and is estimated to be at 15,000 to 20,000.
A refugee looks out the car window
at the Mai river. She speaks of how her
family nearly starved when they stayed here.
When the community reached Nepal, they initially settled along the Mai river and a humanitarian disaster ensued. Refugees speak of begging house-to-house in the local Nepali communities and of boiling rotten rice for food. Dysentery and other diseases became common, and child mortality rates escalated. At this point the Nepalese government and United States High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) began to take action, CARITAS got involved, and in 1991, the first of eventually seven refugee camps was established.

  • 1991-2007: For approximately the next fifteen years, the refugee community put down some roots in Nepal while debating their future.

Map showing the location of the camps in Nepal.
The community’s most basic needs have been supported by the UNHCR. Every two years, the UNHCR holds a census in the camps and uses this to determine everything from the food and fuel rations to the size of the thatched huts provided to families. At least a generation of children in the camps entered and finished school.

While technically it was (and is) not legal for these refugees to work in Nepal, this policy has not been strictly enforced. In addition to working in everything from farming to construction to schools, refugees (and Nepalis) have taken part in vocational training programs implemented by CARITAS.

Rice is kept in large protected
warehouses in the camps.
Some families also intermarried during this time. Some Bhutanese intermarried with people from the local Nepali community, which was facilitated by the fact that Hindu Bhutanese share the same caste system as the Nepali Hindus. Some refugees married people in India. The geography of families did and does not necessarily correspond to the geography of nations.

The debate about the future of the community during this time was heated and occasionally violent, with some favoring repatriation in Bhutan, and others favoring integration in Nepal, and still others favoring third-country resettlement. Third-country resettlement only emerged as a serious option in 2007. This is a choice available to members of the refugee community who are registered at the camps. Resettlement is not forced.

In the beginning, this choice was very controversial, in part because those who supported a return to Bhutan believed third-country resettlement undermines the political movement to return to Bhutan. Those who are among the first to choose resettlement in 2007 often did not speak publicly about their choice before they left out of fear of retribution. As more have left, the choice is becoming more accepted. Still, it’s important to recognize that families continue to agonize over whether or not it is the right choice for them. 

The United States has agreed to resettle the most refugees, and Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands are also accepting significant numbers of refugees.

Teachers: The generation of young people entering our schools grew up in the refugee camps in Nepal. While they have pledged allegiance to Bhutan and sung the anthem each school day, they have never known life in Bhutan.

Their parents and grandparents have. There may or may not be conflict within the family about
the choice to resettle and the choice over where to resettle. While it may seem to a Westerner that a family living in a refugee camp would jump at the chance to leave, third country resettlement has never been an obvious choice for members of this community.

Members of your student’s family may be in India and Bhutan, as well as in Nepal, and since 2007 they may also have relatives and friends scattered across North America, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe.

Though many refugee children were born in Nepal and never lived in Bhutan, the schools in the refugee camps taught Bhutanese social studies (government, civics, and history), and the Dzongkha language was part of the curriculum. When the schools were organized members of the community believed (and some continue to believe) that a return to Bhutan is both desirable and viable.
The United States government officially supports the right of return for Bhutanese refugees.

Bhutanese refugees are a diverse group who grew up in a community of mixed religions and languages. They may be Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or belong to other religions. Ethnically, some look more Southeast Asian and some look more East Asian. They may, in addition to Nepali and English, speak the languages spoken by the Rai, Subba, and Tamang communities, among others. (Later in this blog I have referred to these languages as “mother tongues” since they are languages of communities, rather than a native language.) Students may also have some familiarity with Hindi. This group clearly has some experience in navigating cultural and linguistic differences.