Bhutanese Refugees


Taktsang monastery, built on a cliff face above Paro, Bhutan

Taktsang monastery, built on a cliff face above Paro, Bhutan


From this time, Nepali-speaking people are brought by government contractors to settle in southern Bhutan, to clear the forest and establish rich terraced farmlands, providing the main food supplies for the country.


The Wangchuk dynasty comes to power in Bhutan with the crowning of Ugyen Wangchuk.


India and Bhutan sign a treaty through which India guides its neighbour's foreign relations.  As Bhutan's major donor, India holds an influential position over Bhutan from then on.

Bhutan passes its first Citizenship Act and full citizenship is granted to people in southern Bhutan


Active policies are passed on the integration of ethnic communities, including incentives for inter-marriage and moving secondary school students to other parts of the country.  Centres of worship, with Buddhist and Hindu temples side by side, are established in southern areas. 

Pre 1985

Citizenship Act passed.  This tightens the requirements for a Bhutanese citizen by naturalization.  It contains several provisions for the termination of citizenship.  Citizenship may be revoked for disloyalty to the king, country and people of Bhutan. 


'Though I was small when I came from Bhutan I remember it well because my parents always talk about our beautiful home, our land and our animals'

Dil Maya



Census operation in Southern Bhutan only.  To prove their status Southern Bhutanese are required to produce a land tax receipt specifically from the year of 1958.  People previously recognised as Bhutanese re-classified as 'illegal immigrants'.  Several thousand are forced to leave the country.


Public unease abounds about the conduct of the census and repressive measures in the south.  Under the policy of 'One Nation, One People', Southern Bhutanese are required to wear the northern traditional dress in public and adopt their customs.  The Nepali language is removed from the school curriculum.  The Hindu Sanskrit schools are closed.

Tek Nath Rizal, a Royal Advisory Counsellor, leads a petition to the King to express his concerns and is imprisioned.


Public demonstrations are held across Southern Bhutan and demands for civil and cultural rights for Southern Bhutanese are presented to district authorities.  All who participated are branded 'anti-nationals' by the government.  This is followed by widespread ill-treatment, including rape, and hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions without trials, with over 2000 people tortured, according to Amnesty International.

Read some personal testimonies.


There is widespread repression in southern Bhutan.  Citizenship cards are confiscated by government authorities.  Many southern Bhutanese government employees are dismissed from service.  Homes are burnt and demolished.

Southern Bhutanese begin to flee the country, some following eviction by government forces following further census exercises, some through fear of arrest and torture.  Southern Bhutanese citizens are forced into signing so-called "voluntary migration forms".

The exodus of tens of thousands of people via India into Nepal creates a humanitarian crisis.  Those arriving in India are put in trucks and moved on to the Nepalese border.  There is a cholera outbreak in the camps.

Read some personal testimonies.


At the request of government of Nepal, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal.  The refugee exodus reaches its peak by mid-year: up to 600 people a day arrive in the camps in Nepal.  At the end of the main exodus, about 100,000 settle in the camps, with up to 20,000 living elsewhere in Nepal and India.

Read some personal testimonies.


The governments of Bhutan and Nepal establish the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) to verify the status of the people in the refugee camps and work toward a resolution of the refugee problem.  16 rounds of meetings ensued over the next 10 years but yielded no resolution.


The AMCC launches a peace march from the refugee camps in Nepal to carry an appeal to the King of Bhutan.  Successive waves of marchers, 1,400 in total, are arrested by the Indian authorities.  Some gain entry to Bhutan but are ejected by Bhutanese security forces.  All are eventually returned to Nepal.

In March, the European Parliament passes a resolution, calling for an agreement to allow "the early voluntary repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees to their country of origin".  Offers of mediation and diplomatic assistance are made from various European donor countries, but are not taken up by Bhutan.


Bhutanese political and human rights groups in exile lunch a joint movement, the United Front for Democracy.  Its chairman, Rongthong Kunley Dorji, a Sharchhop from eastern Bhutan, is arrested in India in response to an extradition request.  An estimated 150 people from eastern Bhutan suspected of sympathising with the UFD, are detained and many reportedly subjected to torture, according to Amnesty International.

Refugee activists attend the Human Rights Commission and Sub-Commission and Sub-Commission in Geneva, on this and other years.  The Human Rights Commission resolution 1997/36 has clear implications for the Bhutanese issue.


In Bhutan, the government begins a process of resettling landless people from northern Bhutan on the lands owned by the refugees.  In May, 219 relatives of 'anti-nationals' (refugee activists) are dismissed from government service.  Southern Bhutanese remaining in Bhutan continue to face severe and sustained discrimination amounting to persecution.  Since 1991, Southern Bhutanese have been required to get 'No Objection Certificates' (Security Clearance Certificates) to state that neither they nor their relatives were involved in the democracy movement and other 'anti-national' activities.  This certificate is very difficult to obtain, but is needed to access schools and other government services, as well as to work with the government or gain a business licence, including for selling cash crops.


Bhutan submits its first report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Tek Nath Rizal is granted an amnesty by the King of Bhutan and released from prison


Under increasing pressure from the international community to find a solution, Bhutan and Nepal agree to commence a pilot screening of refugees in one of the camps.


The 12, 173 inhabitants of Khudunabari camp (about one eighth of the total population in the refugee camps) are screened by the joint Bhutanese / Nepalese verification team.  No monitoring by UNHCR or any independent third party allowed.

After 10 years in exile, the refugees face increasing extreme frustration, indicated by theri deteriorating mental health status.


The results of the verification process in Khudunabari are announced: 75% of those screened are found eligible for return to Bhutan.  On December 22nd the Bhutanese leader of the verification team spells out what is considered by most to be unfair conditions of return to the assembled refugees.

Refugees express their frustration and anger.  In a scuffle, Bhutanese members of the verification team are injured.  They return to Bhutan and the process leading to repatriation is halted.


The government of Nepal conducts an investigation into the December 22nd incident and invites the Bhutanese to resume bilateral talks.  No formal talks take place and no progress is made.


'He is an old man who thinks life is like smoke that a puff of wind can disperse. He complains that he will die without seeing his country again. Myself and others tell him that is not the way to think.'    Yethi Raj / BRCF / PhotoVoice

'He is an old man who thinks life is like smoke that a puff of wind can disperse. He complains that he will die without seeing his country again. Myself and others tell him that is not the way to think.'   Yethi Raj / BRCF / PhotoVoice


At a press conference in New Delhi in January, King Jigme Singyw Wangchuk is reported as saying that the people in the refugee camps are not Bhutanese citizens, and could have been living in India or Nepal previously.

In February, the government of Nepal declares a state of emergency.  No progress is made on resolving the refugee issue.


USA makes an offer to take up to 60,000 Bhutanese refugees.  Other countries, including Canada and Australia, also indicate openness to receiving some of the refugees.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicates in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchok.


The resettlement process begins. By the end of September, 5,300 refugees had been settled: the majority in the US, and smaller numbers in Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway. The process is being managed by the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM).

Of the total Bhutanese refugee camp population, over 50,000 have expressed interest in resettlement. Others strongly oppose third country resettlement, seeing it as possibly eroding their right to return to their country. 

Thousands ofBhutanese people of Nepalese origin (Lhotshampas) were denied the right to vote in Bhutan’s first “democratic” election held in early 2008. During the election campaign, candidates were barred from speaking about matters of citizenship and security, issues which are crucial to Lhotshampas living in Bhutan and to refugees seeking to return to Bhutan.

Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Lyonchhen Jigmi Thinley, met with his Nepalese counterpart, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, in September 2008, and reportedly assured him that he would take initiatives towards finding a solution to the refugee problem.


With the resettlement process having been underway since 2008 significant numbers of the registered Bhutanese refugees living in the Nepalesecamps have now moved, primarily to the USA and in smaller numbers to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The latest update circulated by UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) on December 9 2009 shows that 25,000th Bhutanese refugee left the camps in Nepal to start a new life in the United States.  In total, 22,060 refugees have been resettled in the US, 1006 in Australia, 892 in Canada, 316 in Norway, 305 in Denmark, 299 in New Zealand and 122 in the Netherlands.

86,739 Bhutanese refugees remain in seven camps in eastern Nepal. In total, more than 80,728 refugees have already expressed their interest in resettlement.

The resettling Bhutanese refugees will continue to have refugee status until they choose to apply for and are granted the citizenship in the countries in which they have resettled. 

The resettlement offer is open only to the registered Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and there are an estimated 35,000 refugees living outside the camps in Nepal and India.