May 18, 2007

The effects of ethnic cleansing aren’t confined to places like Darfur and Kosovo. Today, over 100,000 of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepali citizens languish in refugee camps here, stripped of their citizenship and stateless. It’s a decade-long tragedy that’s only getting worse.

In the early 1990s, demonstrations by ethnic Nepalis demanding better civil liberties touched off an ethnic cleansing campaign by Bhutan’s ruling Drukpa elite. Between 1990 and 1992, the government forced tens of thousands of ethnic Nepali citizens to India, which in turn sent them to Nepal.

Bhutan insists the majority left voluntarily and forfeited their right to return, but the refugees tell a different story. “The army took all the people from their houses,” one young man told me, recalling childhood memories of the expulsion. “On the way there were many police. We were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile . . . He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily.”

Today, most languish in camps in the eastern part of Nepal, living in bamboo huts that offer little physical protection from the elements. Confined to these living quarters by Nepali officials, they are completely dependent on international aid to survive. The willingness of donors to continue indefinite handouts is waning, however, and refugees are now experiencing major cutbacks in food, fuel and shelter materials.

The vast majority of refugees want to return home, as is their right. Bhutan has signed binding international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enshrines the right of return. During this long period of exile, however, Bhutan has not officially allowed any refugees back.

And while it may be “home,” Bhutan doesn’t offer much better economic prospects. The government’s rhetoric is catchy: According to Bhutan’s draft constitution, “the state shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” But the reality is that Bhutan is a poor, developing country that’s only now opening up to trade with the outside world.

It is also unclear how ethnic Nepalis would be treated in today’s Bhutan. The country’s draft constitution enshrines “fundamental rights and freedoms of the people.” But these ideals are a far cry from reality. Ethnic Nepalis remain a marginalized group in constant fear of losing their citizenship and being evicted. More generally, Bhutanese citizens, of any ethnicity, can’t enroll in higher education, get a government job, obtain business licenses, or buy or sell land unless they have a police-issued card attesting that the bearer is not “anti-national,” or critical of the monarchy.

Most Bhutanese refugees only want to repatriate to their home country if they are given safety guarantees. But the government has shown no willingness to let them back at all, let alone meet such conditions. So they remain in closed camps in Nepal, subject to the societal dysfunction typical in protracted camp settings, including depression, and domestic and sexual violence.

There is a spark of hope: The United States, tired perhaps of shoveling humanitarian aid into these camps, has offered to resettle up to 60,000 refugees. Australia has offered homes to another 1,000, and other countries may follow suit.

But that’s not a complete solution. There are some refugees who see these offers as undercutting their right of return to Bhutan. Some have even threatened fellow refugees who support resettlement, seeking to intimidate those who speak out in favor of a move away.

To solve this conundrum, the U.S. and other countries might make clear that resettlement in a third country does not extinguish a refugee’s right of return. Pressure, too, could be increased on Bhutan to allow refugees to return safely and with dignity. After well over a decade in the camps, this mountain kingdom’s forgotten citizens deserve as much.

Bill Frelick is Refugee Policy director at Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.