Related Issue

  • Review/168/07: US clarifications on the Bhutanese refugees, 23 May 2007
  • Review/167/07: Communists in Bhutan? - The contribution of the US, UNHCR, India and et all, 16 May 2007
  • Review/147/06: Bhutan: A royal family affair, 27 December 2006
  • Review/106/06: Democratic Bhutan: Sincere promise or a ploy? 4 January 2006

  • Opportunity or Threat: The US Resettlement Offer for the Bhutanese Refugees

    According to Bhutan’s State media on 21 February 2008, the Bhutanese security forces arrested eight people from the Nepali speaking minority in Bhutan. They were detained in connection with a series of bombings apparently aimed at disrupting the forthcoming elections. The Bhutanese security forces claimed that the detained persons are members of the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) — a group blamed for 4 February 2008 explosion in Bhutan's southwest and four other blasts across the country in January 2008. The Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB) on the other hand claimed that the Bhutanese security forces also brutally killed four persons belonging to Nepali minority and the whereabouts of the eight arrested persons are not known. 


    The Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) (BCP) and the Bhutan Tiger Force (BTF) are two increasingly visible armed groups. Both group’s primary political goal is the return to Bhutan of the more than 100,000 refugees from Bhutan who have lived in refugee camps in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s. Bhutan will hold the first elections on 24 March 2008 and the members of the Nepali community will be disenfranchised and further marginalized as a result.


    These operations also coincide with allegations from exiled Bhutanese refugee groups that the Bhutanese authorities are applying increasing pressure on an already oppressed Nepali speaking Bhutanese minority.  They claim that conditions have deteriorated to the point that many of Bhutan’s Nepali speaking minority are preparing to leave.


    While it is perhaps too early to predict exactly how events will unfold, the international community would do well to be concerned about rising ethnic tension. One clear risk is that further armed resistance will provoke a stronger security response from the Bhutanese government. If Bhutan were to use the ‘fight against terror’ as a cover for a wider political project it would not be the first government to do so.


    The International Community:


    Any assessment of the prospects of further refugee flows from Bhutan should be examined in the context of the announcement by the US government in October 2006 to resettle 60,000 refugees. Several other countries, including Canada, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia – known as the Core Working Group -, expressed similar interests.

    The resettlement offer has already brought to the surface existing tensions within the camps and in Bhutan that have led to violence. While many individual refugees see the offer as an opportunity, influential political groupings amongst the Bhutanese refugee community vehemently oppose third country resettlement. Many political groups have responded negatively to the resettlement offer. They see it as a conspiracy to undercut the goal of return to Bhutan and to undermine the will to seek the fundamental political changes in Bhutan that would make return possible.

    The BCP-MLM and BTF are increasingly exploiting the democratic parties’ failure to achieve peaceful solutions by launching a campaign that includes intimidation, violence and political exploitation.  This already tense situation is framed by the breakdown of general security in Nepal, the collapse of the rule of law and diminishing donor support to the camps.

    India :


    Any resolution of the Bhutanese refugee issue is tightly bound to India.  However, for the last eighteen years India has insisted that the refugee issue was and remains a purely bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan. This is entirely mendacious: Nepal and Bhutan have no shared border. India put the fleeing Bhutanese refugees on trucks and lorries, dumped inside Nepalese territory and ever since protected Bhutan diplomatically. India’s position continues to be of concern. As recently as 9 June 2007 the Indian Foreign Minister Pranav Mukharjee unhelpfully stated that if: ‘the refugees in Nepal get back to Bhutan, there will be demographic imbalance in the region.'  The rise of India as a geo-strategic power weakens the hand of the international community still further. No government is prepared to expend valuable political influence with India on an issue that has little or no discernible direct interest for the concerned state.


    Bhutan :


    Bhutan ’s defence of ethnic cleansing and the resulting refugee issue has been well organised, effective and underwritten by a protective India. Key to Bhutan’s success in avoiding international community pressure has been an argument that the issue is a bilateral issue between Nepal and Bhutan. As will be seen below, Bhutan found Nepal a largely compliant opponent. International political will has been further diluted by division: despite evidence of ethnic-cleansing, donors to Bhutan have been and continue to be unwilling to use development assistance as a tool to influence policy.


    Nepal :


    Bhutanese refugees have looked to Nepal to protect their interests. Nepal’s response has been lamentable. During the democratic period the policy toward the refugees was confused, inconsistent and frequently incomprehensible. Since the ‘people’s movement’ domestic governance has rapidly disappeared. A coherent or effective response to the refugee situation from Nepal is at best unlikely.


    US and Other Western Governments:


    The Core Working Group focuses largely on the humanitarian dimension of the refugee issue. But they remain publicly sensitive to accusations of giving in to ethnic cleansing. On 23 June 2007, responding to NGO criticism on this stand, the US declared that the “Core Working Group on Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal” is committed to finding “a comprehensive and sustainable resolution”. 


    On 9th January 2008, a refugee resettlement processing center for the Bhutanese refugees by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was opened in Damak in Jhapa district, Nepal. This haste to proceed with resettlement to the US and the lack of visible efforts by the US to press for a comprehensive solution has been taken by Bhutanese refugees as a symbol as to where US priorities lie.


    UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees):

    The role of UNCHR has always been of concern. UNHCR unconditionally welcomed the US offer despite the lack of provisions on international principle. The visit of ranking UNHCR representative Antonio Guterres to the region in May 2007 was no less helpful because there was no focus on repatriation: only on resettlement. UNHCR’s public position has compromised its neutrality. Well-placed contacts in Geneva suggest that UNHCR is keen to expedite a solution at any cost. Refugees recognise this as the de facto policy.  On 3 May 2007, the activists of the CPB (MLM) prevented representatives of the UNHCR from holding consultations with Bhutanese refugees at Beldangi camp regarding their resettlement in the United States.




    The Core Working Group members defends their position arguing that the refugees can no longer be held hostage to bilateral negotiations between Nepal and Bhutan that in eighteen years have achieved nothing. They have a point.


    ACHR would argue that resettlement is a generous offer but should be part of a comprehensive solution. Moreover ACHR would argue that the resettlement offer has created an opportunity for progress toward such a solution as the problem is now clearly international.


    A resettlement offer made in isolation of a wider solution carries risk. The armed Maoist movement in Bhutan may gain strength from the offer and Bhutan’s security operations in response may add impetus to new flow of refugees out of Bhutan and drawn to Nepal by visions of a new life in America. The risk of the international community resettlement offer is that is it likely to increase the pull factors from Bhutan when strong push factors have been working overtime.


    Growing militancy is of real concern; not only could it affect the refugees’ chances of resettlement, it could potentially promote cross border and indeed regional insurgency along the trajectory of Nepal’s Maoists.


    India has compelling security reasons to reconsider a change of tack. India with the rest of the international community should bring pressure to bear on Bhutan to permit the refugees to return home in safety and dignity and to end discrimination against its ethnic Nepali citizens.


    The Core Working Group, for its part, has to be more transparent about its wider strategy and reassure those who care about the refugees and the remaining Nepali speakers in Bhutan that they have their best interests at heart and demonstrate that they are not going to be party to ethnic cleansing by Bhutan.

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