In the early nineties, a conflict between the Bhutanese and the ethnic Nepalese minority shattered the image of Bhutan as an isolated but idyllic country. More than 100,000 Nepalese were expelled from the country.
Refugees from Bhutan wait at a transit camp for resettlement in Kathmandu
Bhutan is a multiethnic state in which 20 different languages are spoken by a population of just 680.000 people. For about 100 years the Bhutanese people and immigrants from Nepal lived together in harmony. But during a census in 1988, the Bhutanese government discovered that the Nepalese had actually become the majority ethnic group in the southern districts. The Bhutanese saw a threat to their national identity and sovereignty.
Many of the Nepalese community couldn't prove they had Bhutanese citizenship, so they were expelled from Bhutan and returned to their country of origin. The refugees were accommodated in Nepal but were denied the right to stay there. As a temporary solution, the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, erected seven refugee camps for them in eastern Nepal.
The Kingdom of Bhutan borders Nepal
Manfred Kulessa, the former honorary consul of Bhutan in Germany visited the camps several times. "Each refugee camp is different," he says. "The refugee camps in Nepal were not like the Palestinian camps in the Middle East. The UNHCR built huts in a big forest without a fence. There was no control and people could move around freely. They felt like Bhutanese - each day they hoisted the Bhutanese flag. It has not been as horrible as in other refugee camps, but still there was very little hope."
In 2008 the first resettlement program started, organized by the UNHCR together with the International Organization for Migration. Out of a total of around 107,000 refugees more than 33,000 have already left for different countries, primarily heading for the United States of America.
Bhutanese refugees demonstrating in Nepal in 2006
Beginning of a new life
The UNHCR prepares the refugees for a new life in a new country in regular information sessions. They are also offered English language classes. The UNHCR has been provided with feedback on the program by those who have already been resettled, says Nepal-based spokesperson Nini Gurung.
"They write to us, they send us emails, they call us sometimes and they tell us about their lives," she says. "We are really happy that they are learning new languages, their children are in schools. Most of them have found jobs and in fact they are really happy with their new home. But of course they miss their families and friends in the camps and starting a new life in a new country is never easy."
Even under the new king of Bhutan, there has been no progress on the refugee issue
The option of voluntary return
The UNHCR continues to support the option of voluntary return to Bhutan for the refugees who do not want to move on to third countries. Especially the older people are hopeful that they can go back to Bhutan one day. "There have been already certain discussions between the government of Nepal and the government of Bhutan," says Nini Gurung. "Unfortunately there has been no progress in the bilateral process and not a single refugee has been able to return to Bhutan. Many feel that they cannot wait longer on the bilateral process and they need to try for a better life for the families outside the camps and independent of humanitarian transfers."
The UNHCR hopes that more countries will agree to accept them in future.
Author: Julia Thienhaus
Editor: Grahame Lucas