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BHUTAN: Refugee Problem- Internationalisation is working. Update 29.


Note No. 181                                                  07.04.2003

 by Dr. S. Chandrasekharan 

“Without India’s direct involvement there will be no guarantee of peace and human rights for the refugees.  So it will be worthless to return to Bhutan even after such understanding.  We have not heard anything from the Indian side”- Tek Nath Rijal- in an interview to Nepali Post- 15 Feb. 2003. 

It looks that India will finally have to react to the refugee problem which it had refused to see so far.  Rights go with responsibility, but the Indian side has been maintaining that it is a bilateral problem between Nepal and Bhutan and it has nothing to do.  But the Refugee question has now gone beyond the bilateral mode and the efforts of the refugees to internationalise the issue appears to be working.  India cannot continue to be an onlooker any longer! 

The Refugees mount pressure: First was the relay fast undertaken first by the refugees of Kudenabari camp followed by the refugees of other camps.  There were hurried efforts by the Nepal Government to get the talks with Bhutan moving with a visit of the foreign minister of Nepal to Thimpu.  A non governmental pressure group led by former foreign minister Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay was in Geneva for lobbying.  Prior to the meeting a group of diplomats of donor countries including the US visited the refugee camps and all that the refugees asked was that they should be repatriated with “dignity and honour.” 

The major donor countries for the round table on Bhutan met in Geneva between Feb. 18 and Feb. 20 and the meet focused on the plight of the Bhutanese refugees and the status of the Lhotsampas ( Bhutanese of Nepali origin) inside Bhutan. 

On behalf of the refugees, Rakesh Chhetri, Executive Director of Centre for Protection of minorities and discrimination in Bhutan (CEMARD) made a written appeal to the heads of donor countries, UN Secretary General, Representatives of World Bank, ADB, UNHCR and heads of aid agencies. 

The appeal touched on the abuse of human rights and ethnic cleansing undertaken by Bhutan and the right of refugees to return to one’s homeland, a right protected by various international laws.  The appeal mentioned the inordinate delay in the verification of the refugees and a point forcefully made was that even after ten years of talks at the ministerial level ( Joint Ministerial Level Committee), the issue stands where it began. 

At the end of the appeal, specific actionable points were made and these included

1.  Pressurise Bhutan to submit a clear road map for speedy repatriation and resettlement within one year.

2.  Stop immediately resettlement in the land left by the refugees.

3.  Speed up the verification.

4.  Include organisations like UNHCR in the ministerial and the joint verification teams. 

A copy of the appeal is given as an appendix at the end of this update.                                  

Bhutan’s antics:  Bhutan on its part tried to make out that it is only “too eager to take back” the refugees.  Consider the following cynical statements made by Bhutan in the donor meeting. 

“ The ongoing resettlement process is temporary to arrest the decaying of cardamom and oranges, the main source of income of southern Bhutan.”     

“ We have no ill intention towards refugees and we are determined to take them back.” 

If these statements were true, why has Bhutan taken one year and three months just to consider the case of 12000 refugees of Kudenabari camp and categorise them when verification has already been completed?  They were still not ready with the categorisation in the JMLC meeting that followed and wanted time till the next meeting in May. Why should they inflict punishment on the poor northerners just to look after the oranges and cardamom grown by the refugees who have since been driven out?  Is it not obvious that if there was any determination- it was to ensure  as much delay as possible so that the refugees out of sheer fatigue give up all hopes of returning? 

A delegation of the refugee community visited Kathmandu on March 13 and met the officials of the diplomatic missions of Japan, Germany and the USA.  They presented a position paper on the repatriation process and urged that the verification process should be re started immediately and repatriation process completed within six months. 

Follow up steps and the Joint Ministerial Meeting (13th):  Spurred by the attention given by the international community, both Nepal and Bhutan took up the follow up steps of categorising the refugees of persons already verified.  As a preliminary to the joint inter ministerial talks, a six-member team led by the Joint secretary of Home, S.J.B Rana visited Thimpu.  In the ministerial meeting that followed on March 24, it is learnt that while Nepal was ready with categorisation, Bhutan had not done its home work and wanted time till the next meeting in May to complete the task.  So much for the keenness of Bhutan to take back the refugees quickly! 

The case of “Voluntary Migration Forms” : One interesting feature that has come out of the 13th meeting was that Bhutan had agreed to take back all those who file the “voluntary repatriation” form as per international norms.  The filing of forms is meant to be only for three categories of refugees- namely those forced to leave, those who emigrated willingly and those who have criminal records. 

The legal/political implications  or otherwise of accepting this procedure of  filing forms should be examined by the refugees first before making any move.  These include 

1.  Since migration forms are being given to Bhutanese only, there is an implicit acceptance that there exists only two categories- Bhutanese and non Bhutanese - a position that South Asia Analysis Group has maintained always  that there could be no four categories. 

2.  Having filed the forms- Does this justify or condone the act itself of having forced the poor refugees to leave the country in the first place?  If this is a legal justification for what has been done to the refugees, it has to be opposed vehemently.  However if it is to condone for past acts, the refugees should accept the position, opt to go back and start on a new slate. 

3.  What happens if Bhutan rejects the voluntary migration forms of some of the individuals? If it is the legal position that the refugees having left the country and taken refugee status, will not the Bhutan government take the position that it has a sovereign right to reject any person applying for voluntary migration? What is the guarantee that Bhutan will abide by the undertaking given in the bilateral talks? 

4.  If it is fresh migration, will the refugees be given the same plots and residential areas from where they were thrown out?  After all Bhutan government has maintained in all seriousness in the donor meeting in Geneva that they have been maintaining the orange groves and cardamom plantations with the help of others and awaiting the return of the lawful owners! 

5.  Will Bhutan let UNHCR to continue to be associated in rehabilitation in Bhutan in post repatriation period?     

These questions would need a reasonable response from both Bhutan and Nepal before any decision is taken by the refugees to file the forms.  It is equally important to insist that verification of the other camps should be continued simultaneously at a greater pace and a time limit should be insisted for verification itself as otherwise, it  may continue for another eight to ten years! 


Appeal to Bhutan’s Donor Countries and Agencies at the Round Table Meeting, (RTM) Geneva February 18-19, 2003 on the plight of Bhutanese Refugees and Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa citizens inside Bhutan

February 11, 2003

An Appeal to all the following development partners of Bhutan was sent on February 11, 2003

1 H.E. Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary General, the United Nations Organization.
2. H.E. the Presidents of Austria, Finland and India.
3. H.E. the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, India, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
4. H.E. the Chancellors of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
5. H.E. Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, , Finland, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the Secretary of State, USA.
6. H.E. Minister for Economic and Labour, Austria, HE Minister of Economic and business affairs, Denmark, Minister of DIDC, Finland, Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany.
7. H.E. the President of European Union, the Secretary General, Council of EU, European Parliament, EU Commissioner for External Relations, EU Development Aid Division, EU Humanitarian Aid Office, EC Directorate-General for External Relations, EU Head of Human Rights, EU Head of relations with the UN committee on human rights and European Community.
8. The diplomatic missions of Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, European Union, Finland, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America based in New Delhi, India.
9. The diplomatic missions Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, European Union, Finland, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
10. The Presidents of World Bank, Washington, D.C., USA and the Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines.
11. The Resident Representatives, World Bank, New Delhi, India and Kathmandu, Nepal
12.The Resident Representatives, Asian Development Bank, New Delhi, India and Kathmandu, Nepal
13.The Resident Representatives, UNDP, Thimphu, Bhutan and Kathmandu, Nepal
14.The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, Geneva
15.The Unite Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva
Resident Representative UNHCR, Kathmandu, Nepal
17.The India Embassy, India House, Thimphu, Bhutan
18.The Head Offices Aid agencies to Bhutan - Austrian Coordination Bureau, Vienna, Aust. Aid, Australia, Canadian Cooperation Office, Canada, DANIDA, Denmark, GTZ, Germany, Helvetas, Switzerland, JICA, Japan, Save the Children USA, Washington, SNV, Netherlands and SADC, Switzerland
19.International human rights organisations Amnesty International, London, UK, Human Rights Watch, USA and the Minority Rights Group, London

Subject: Appeal to Bhutan’s Donor Countries and Agencies at the Round Table Meeting, (RTM) Geneva February 18-19, 2003 on the plight of Bhutanese Refugees and Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa citizens inside Bhutan.


The representatives of donor countries, donor agencies, multilateral agencies and the specialize agencies of the United Nations are scheduled to meet in Geneva for the Eighth Round Table Meeting of the Royal Government of Bhutan and international development partners on February 18-19, 2003. The meeting is taking at a time when the Bhutanese refugees have staged a month-old relay hunger strike demanding their return to their homeland, Bhutan with dignity and honour from their 12 years exile in the camps in Nepal and at a time when the human rights situation is very grim inside Bhutan. In this context, we take this opportunity to draw Your Excellency’s kind attention to the plight of Bhutanese refugees, Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa citizens inside Bhutan and human rights situation in Bhutan and seek international support for repatriation of Bhutanese refugees and establishment of human rights in Bhutan.
The tranquil image of Shangri-La as Bhutan was called has been shattered in the last one decade as Bhutan has been responsible for generating one of the highest per capita refugees in the world. Approximately one sixth of the total population of Bhutan are now forced to live as refugees. There are over 110,000 Bhutanese refugees living in the UNHCR administered camps in Nepal and another 25,000 Bhutanese refugees are living outside of camps in Nepal and India. The Nepali-speaking Lhotshampas from Bhutan were forced to leave their country not because of a civil war, foreign intervention or natural calamity, which entitled them to a voluntary return upon restoration of previous status. They were forcefully evicted from their homeland under a well-planned strategy of Royal Government of Bhutan to reduce their numbers at all costs. They are victims of human rights abuses, persecution, torture and the reprehensible practice of ‘ethnic cleansing’ undertaken by the Royal Government of Bhutan ( RGOB). Thus, their return is possible only if Bhutan accepts them back In the past, refugees themselves initiated voluntary repatriation several times - only to be dumped back at Nepal border check post by Bhutanese and Indian police.

The evicted Lhotshampas not only lost their homes and neighbourhood in which they had invested considerable proportion of their income, but they were dispossessed of their personal possessions. The human cost of forced evictions of Lhotshampas are substantial and involves a wide range of additional negative impacts on their livelihood, safety and security of their children. Lhotshampas are facing a situation of statelessness, physical, psychological and emotional trauma, insecurity of the future of their children, loss of livelihood, problem of educating their children, loss of faith in the legal and political system of the country, tensions, increased social criminalization and so on. This is a grave humanitarian situation that seeks immediate attention of international community. Bhutanese refugees have collective and inalienable rights under the international law to return to their homes and property, from which they had been forcefully evicted and uprooted by the RGOB. The right to return to one’s homeland is a universal right protected by various international laws including Article 13 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

As of date, twelfth rounds of Nepal Bhutan Joint Ministerial Level Committee Talk (JMLCT) have been held since 1993, the last being held on February 06, 2003. These talks are held as per the need and pleasure of Bhutan. All these talks have failed to arrive even at a common agreement let alone the resolution of Bhutanese refugee issue. Bhutan hurriedly called the one day 12th round of JMLCT on February 06, 2003, just ahead of Bhutan’s donors’ meeting in Geneva. As expected the JMLCT ended inconclusively, as Bhutan has never shown sincerity to take back its citizens. By holding the 12th Talk, Bhutan wanted to create impression on the donors and international community that it is engaged in finding solution to the issue of Bhutanese refugees. However, it became clearly evident from the recently concluded twelfth round of JMLCT that refugees issue cannot be resolved through bilateral efforts of Nepal and Bhutan. Practically, the refugee issue today stands where it began in 1993, the first JMLC Talk. Bhutan has been making and breaking promises to take back its citizens from the camps for last one decade. A decade of lies of Bhutan has compelled the refugees to distrust Bhutan. It has lost complete credibility. How can a country coolly dump its citizens in another country for such a long time with impunity?. Is there no international law which can be applied against Bhutan? Under sustained international pressure, the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team ( JVT) was formed. The JVT completed verification of refugees living in Khudunabari camp. 98% of verified Bhutanese refugees could produce documents to prove their origin to Bhutan. Since, a year has passed, neither the result of verification of refugees has been made public nor the verification of the remaining camps have been started. The process of past verification was extremely slow. At this pace, it will take at least six to ten years to complete the interviews of refugees and verification of their documents. There must be a time-bound completion of verification process and the repatriation of refugees. The number of JVT groups must be increased to at least 12, two groups each per six camps. The JVT must complete the verification of at least 400 refugees per day. The verification must start in all the camps simultaneously and complete within a year.

Categorization: The refugees do not accept their categorization into four categories. There should be only two categories – Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. Categorization has become a stumbling block in the resolution of refugee issue. The failure of harmonization of two countries’ position on categorization has seriously impeded the progress of bilateral Ministerial initiatives.

Resettlement: Bhutan is still continuing to transfer population from north and east of the country and settle them on the lands left behind by refugees in Southern Bhutan. This will make it very difficult for refugees to return to the land they previously owned. The King of Bhutan in his national day address on December 17, 2002 indicated the continuation of resettlement programme and allotment of land to 600 families in southern Bhutan. This clearly demonstrates RGOB’s desire to sabotage any attempt of refugee repatriation to their original homesteads. The resettlement must be stopped.

Constitution: In the past few months Bhutan undertook a major international media propaganda regarding its drafting of a democratic Constitution. However, no member from Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa community was included in the drafting committee, thus, muting the minority voice in its formulation. The Constitution is being officially publicised as a ‘Royal Gift" without the desire or the demands of people. Since, the Constitution is imposed by the RGOB without peoples’ aspirations or demands, it will only serve the interests of the rulers and not of the ruled.

In Bhutan, people even today do not enjoy the basic personal freedoms like wearing the dresses of their own choice. And here the government is talking about the ‘Bill of Rights and democracy’ in a grandiose manner. The RGOB does not tolerate any criticism of its action and policies. People have no right to freedom of expression and press, which are the basic pillars of a democratic society. There are hundreds of political prisoners in Bhutanese prisons incarcerated for their criticism of the government policies and voicing concern for political and human rights. Bhutanese people inside the country live under constant fear of intimidation and persecution. It is impossible for the people who are still being denied and deprived of their basic rights to believe that current feudal system will change just because, it has adopted a 50 pages of the document and that this document will bring qualitative and real change to their lives. The Constitution is RGOB ‘s gimmick to deceive the international community about Bhutan’s so-called democratic credential to secure more economic aid for suppressing and oppressing people. It is also designed to deflect international opinion from the real issue of the repatriation of Bhutanese refugees, resettlement and human rights abuses inside Bhutan.

While the Constitution was at the final stage of drafting, a country-wide election was held on October 29, 2002 for the post of 201 village headman which was not conducted by any independent Election Commission, but by the Dzongdas (district administrators) as usual. The election was farce as the people were not given the right to choose the candidate of their choice. In the southern Bhutan, the Dzongdas selected the candidates of their choice. In fact, the administration published the name of only one candidate in Chargharay constituency in Samchi District. The people were asked to caste their votes for the lone candidate in the ballot boxes, on top of which was written ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The people overwhelmingly voted ‘No’ to this particular candidate. The authorities then instantly proposed the name of a voter, who was in a queue to caste his vote as candidate. The people voted the new candidate, who was declared winners. This reveals the anti-democratic credential of the RGOB and how the RGOB makes mockery of democratic norms and principles.

Persecution of Lhotshampas: Lhotshampas inside Bhutan are still being hounded and persecuted by the RGOB. Since 1991, schools in southern Bhutan do not admit the children of Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa citizens. They only admit the children of government officials and security personnel. Several thousand Lhotshampa children are deprived of education. Lhotshampas do not get government contracts and business permits directly. The government, in the southern districts awards contracts and issues business permits to persons of Ngalung or Sharchop community only. Lhotshampas have to secure sub-contract from Ngalungs or Sharchop contractors after paying them hefty commission. The relatives of Dzongdas (district magistrate) in southern Bhutan hold contract licences, secure contract and sub-contract to the Lhotshampas. The corruption in southern Bhutan is rampant, but the government turns a blind eye, or else it will lose officials’ loyalty. The more government officials harass Lhotshampas, the faster they get promotion and plum posting. Since 1991, Lhotshampas must obtain a Security Clearance Certificate (SCC) from the local administration to admit their children in local schools, obtain passport, scholarship, renew trade, business licence, secure government business and contracts. The administration does not issue SCC to Lhotshampas since the majority of Lhotshampas have their relatives among refugees.

Bhutanese JVT leader is now the Director of Special Task Force (STF) in the Home Ministry. The STF maintains the record of refugees in Nepal and of those still residing inside the Bhutan. Lhotshampas are required to obtain SCC from the STF. The STF checks the refugee records and immediately deregisters the relatives of refugees in Nepal from the census register and denies SCC. The STF has deregistered hundreds of Lhotshampas and denationalized them after the refugee verification.

The Lhotshampas are still forced to contribute free labour. They are required to clear the land for new settlers. There is a wide spread discrimination against the Lhotshampas in the villages. The RGOB discriminates in providing services to the Lhotshampa villagers. The piped drinking water and electricity are supplied to the houses of newly arrived settlers, but the same are denied to the Lhotshampas who have been living in the area for generations. Some educated Lhotshampas have moved to capital Thimphu to evade harassment in the districts with their children and families. But now the government has ordered that the children from other districts should not be admitted to schools in Thimphu. The RGOB has terminated thousands of Lhotshampa civil servants from various government offices often with out compensation. Since a decade, all the developments in the southern are stopped citing flimsy security reasons. Development activities are taking place only in northern Bhutan, especially in and around Thimphu and Paro. The presence of huge contingents of army in the civilian areas in the south has also created enormous social problems for the people.

Bhutan cannot achieve good governance by alienation, economic and social exclusion of a section of population inside Bhutan and banishment of one sixth of total population as refugees.

Persecution of Christians: Since 2001, the RGOB has been persecuting Christians in Bhutan. Many of them have been denationalized. They are denied jobs, school admission, passport, government business etc.

In the last Seventh RTM held in Thimphu in 2001, the donors had expressed concerns on increased unemployment, alienation and social exclusion of Lhotshampas, denial of citizenship ID card, education, government employment and trade licenses to them and solution of refugee issue. However, even after two years, Bhutan has not made any progress at all in these areas of donors’ concern Now the time has come for the international donors to demand Bhutan’s compliance to international human rights standards, elimination of discrimination against Lhotshampas and repatriation of refugees. The donor communities should judge Bhutan by its over all human rights situation record and not merely project completion records.

We, Bhutanese people feel that Bhutan could not have acted with such impunity, had there not been an uninterrupted flow of money and support from the donors. The assistance enabled Bhutan to divert its internally generated resources to bankroll its repressive agenda. So long as Bhutan secures support and fund from international community, it will continue its repressive policies. Only international admonishment and blocking of economic aid can make Bhutan to comply with the international human rights standards.

In view the above we on behalf of the Bhutanese people both living in exile and people living inside the country appeal to the donor countries, donor agencies, international community and the United Nations to:

1. Pressurize Bhutan to submit a concrete road map to the international community for the speedy repatriation and rehabilitation of Bhutanese refugee back to their original homesteads in Bhutan within a year.

2. Ask Bhutan to immediately stop the resettlement in the land left behind by the refugees in the interest of just and durable repatriation of Bhutanese refugees and in full consonance with international human rights and humanitarian law under its obligations as State of Origin and withdraw the already settled people.
3. Ask Bhutan to immediately resume verification process of the refugees in remaining six camps simultaneously and increase the number of JVT groups for the speedy verification of refugees.

4. Appoint a Special Rapporteur for Bhutanese refugees and form an international monitoring committee of donor countries, human rights groups, and experts to over see the process of verification, repatriation, and rehabilitation of the refugees.

5. Ask Bhutan to include the representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the JMLCT and JVT.

6. Pressurize Bhutan to abrogate all racial and discriminatory laws and policies against minority Lhotshampas, stop their persecution and treat them with equality and dignity.

7. Ask Bhutan to repeal all laws which discriminate, repress, and punish citizens who do not support government policies.

8. Pressurize Bhutan to remove the requirement of the Security Clearance Certificate for all purposes and provide equal opportunity to Lhotshampas in employment, business, trade, education etc.

9. Ask Bhutan to open all the schools in the southern Bhutan, make education available to the children of all ethnic groups

10. Make human rights a precondition for any international assistance committed to Bhutan. In this context, ask Bhutan to immediately accede to, without limiting reservations, and implement the following international human rights treaties - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its (First) Optional Protocol; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

11. Urge Bhutan to initiate development activities in the southern Bhutan

12. Pressurize Bhutan to respect the rights of minorities under various international human rights instruments.

13. Ask Bhutan to open dialogue with the refugees and dissidents to resolve the long standing human rights and political issues in Bhutan.

14. Tie up the disbursement of economic aid to Bhutan with Bhutan’s compliance to the above.

15. Pressurize Bhutan to submit a report on its compliance to above within a year.

Thanking your
Excellency’s sincerely,

Rakesh Chhetri
Executive Director
Centre for Protection of Minorities and Against Racism and Discrimination in Bhutan (CEMARD-Bhutan)