Teknath Rijal: Seek SAARC help on Bhutanese refugee issue

Pratik Ghimire

Pratik Ghimire

Teknath Rijal: Seek SAARC help on Bhutanese refugee issue

During the early 90s, tens of thousands of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens fled or were deported from the country. They would eventually end up in eastern Nepal via India, and reside there as refugees. Over the years, a large number of refugees have gone on to settle in the US, Australia and various European countries as part of the UN third-country resettlement program. A small number of Bhutanese refugees are still based in Nepal, and they wish to be repatriated back to their homeland. Pratik Ghimire talked to Teknath Rijal, a refugee leader and human rights activist, about the present situation of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

How did the Bhutanese refugee crisis begin?

South Bhutanese were protesting against the government, demanding democracy and human rights for a long time. In the past, ordinary people weren’t supposed to write history; it was against the law. It is said that Bhutanese refugee crisis began in 1991, when Bhutan started expelling people of Nepali origin. But the crisis precipitated way before that. Even history says how the aristocrats have oppressed and even brutally murdered Nepali speaking Bhutanese. 

What is the present situation of Bhutanese refugees?

Refugees were taken to third countries for resettlement and this somewhat addressed a problem. But there are still many Bhutanese refugees, either awaiting resettlement or repatriation. India has a great influence on Bhutan when it comes to resolving the issue relating to repatriation of refugees, but the Indian government hasn’t been helpful. Different media have been talking about this but recently South Asia Watch has come up with an intensive report regarding the plight of Bhutanese refugees. But India has been abstaining itself from involving in this issue saying it is the matter between Nepal and Bhutan.

How many refugees are there in Nepal?

I think there are around 8,000 of them, spread in different parts of Nepal. Some of them have verification cards of refugees and there are those who have no such identification. After the UNHCR left the camp, there were still around 400 refugees who were unverified. In 2011, Nepal stopped registration of Bhutanese refugees. But the problem is Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people have not stopped entering Nepal, and they have no access to any facilities. Their stories are not being told by the media. They are living as stateless people. According to my estimates, there are more than 1,000 such refugees living in the various parts of Nepal. 

How’s the condition of Bhutanese refugees who have resettled in third countries?

Some Bhutanese were sent to third countries but it seems like they aren’t all having a good life there as well. Many of them are suffering. Bhutanese refugees settled in third countries are home-sick and there are reports of some committing suicide, because they miss their home country, their neighbors and their near and dear ones. Members of some families have been scattered and have no way to reunite. 

What do you think is the way out?

There have been several bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan, where Bhutan has acknowledged that 90 percent of the refugees are Bhutanese. Nepal says Bhutan is avoiding further discussion about refugees. In this situation, Nepal should be seeking help from India or other SAARC member states. There are many agendas that need to be explored on many aspects. India should be brought on board and made to comprehend the gravity of the issue. The tyranny of the king toward his own citizens must be revealed. I would also request international organizations to be a part of this refugee issue and help the Bhutanese families, protect their human rights and stop the atrocities of Bhutanese government. My special request is to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who can play a vital role to settle this issue. 

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