III. Background

The Bhutanese refugee crisis has its roots in the history of migration to Bhutan, the resulting ethnically diverse make-up of the country’s population, and the harsh policies of Bhutan’s absolute monarchy towards its ethnic Nepali minority.1 The politically and culturally dominant Ngalongs, who live mainly in the central and western regions of Bhutan, are of Tibetan descent; their ancestors arrived in Bhutan in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Ngalongs speak Dzongkha and follow the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is Bhutan’s state religion. Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is a Ngalong. The Sharchhops, who live in eastern Bhutan, are descendants of the earliest migrants to arrive in Bhutan; they are of Indo-Burmese origin, speak Tshangla (which is closely related to Dzongkha) and follow the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Together the Ngalongs and Sharchhops are known as Drukpas. The third major group, who differ greatly from the Drukpas in terms of culture, language, and religion, are ethnic Nepalis in southern Bhutan; they speak Nepali and are predominantly Hindu.2,3

Ethnic Nepalis first began migrating to Bhutan in the nineteenth century. Many became eligible for Bhutanese citizenship under the 1958 Nationality Law.4 Moreover, from the mid-1950s ethnic Nepalis began to be admitted into the bureaucracy, the army and the police, and were made members of the cabinet and the judiciary.5 However, by the late 1970s the Drukpa establishment had come to see the ethnic Nepalis’ growing numbers and influence as a threat to Bhutan’s cultural identity and the Drukpas’ own privileged position. Increasingly, Bhutan’s ruling elite asserted that the majority of the ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan were not in fact citizens but illegal immigrants who threatened Bhutan’s “survival as a distinct political and cultural entity.”6

The government invoked these perceived threats as justification for a series of discriminatory measures aimed at the political, economic, and cultural exclusion of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepalis. Two new Citizenship Acts were passed in quick succession, in 1977 and 1985, each tightening the requirements for Bhutanese citizenship.7 The 1977 Citizenship Act increased the residency requirement for citizenship by 10 years: from five to 15 years for government servants and from 10 to 20 years for all other foreigners.8 The growing concerns about the threat posed by ethnic Nepalis to Bhutan’s cultural identity were reflected in an additional requirement for applicants for Bhutanese citizenship to have “some knowledge” of the Dzongkha language and Bhutanese history.9 The 1977 Act also provided that citizenship would not be granted to anyone who was related to any person involved in activities against the people, the country, and the King.10 Bhutan’s first national census from 1979 to 1981 used the criteria set out in the 1977 Act to identify residents as citizens or not. Following the census, only those identified as citizens according to the 1977 Act were issued citizenship identity cards.

The 1985 Citizenship Act tightened the requirements for Bhutanese citizenship still further. Under the 1985 Act, a child only automatically qualifies for citizenship if both parents are Bhutanese.11 The 1985 Act raised the bar higher for naturalization.12 The 1985 Act also provided for citizenship by registration if one had been permanently domiciled in Bhutan on or before December 31, 1958, and one’s name had been registered in the Ministry of Home Affairs census register.13

The 1985 Citizenship Act was followed by a new census in 1988. This census amounted to a selective, arbitrary, and retroactive implementation of the 1985 Act. First, the government only conducted the census in southern Bhutan. Second, the authorities excluded ethnic Nepalis from becoming naturalized citizens, as provided for under the 1985 Act; instead, the authorities restricted Bhutanese citizenship to ethnic Nepalis who had records, such as tax receipts, to prove residence in Bhutan in 1958—30 years before the census. Bhutanese officials refused to accept residency records from 1957 or earlier, or from the years 1957 and 1959 (indicating residency in 1958) to establish citizenship. They disregarded the citizenship identity cards issued after the previous census: the authorities classified people who could not prove residence in 1958 as non-nationals, “returned migrants”, or other illegal immigrant categories, even if they possessed a citizenship card.14

The census caused considerable anxiety among the ethnic Nepali population in southern Bhutan. A series of “Bhutanization” measures in line with Bhutan’s “one nation, one people” policy exacerbated this state of fear and resentment by trying to impose a distinct national identity. On January 16, 1989, the king issued a decree requiring all citizens to observe the traditional Drukpa code of values, dress, and etiquette called driglam namzha.15 Then in February 1989 the government removed the Nepali language from the curriculum in all schools in southern Bhutan.16

Ethnic Nepalis perceived these policies as a direct attack on their cultural identity. This led to growing unrest in southern Bhutan, culminating in mass demonstrations in September and October 1990. The government response was swift. The authorities classified all participants in the demonstrations as ngolops (“anti-nationals”), and arrested and detained thousands of people accused of taking part in the demonstrations. Many were subjected to ill-treatment and torture; a number of people reportedly died in detention. The security forces staged frequent raids on the homes of ethnic Nepalis, and there were numerous accounts of women and girls being raped in the course of these raids.17 Following the demonstrations, the government closed all schools in southern Bhutan and suspended health services.18

By the end of 1990 the Bhutanese authorities coerced the first ethnic Nepalis to leave Bhutan. They released some ethnic Nepalis from prison on condition that they would leave the country, while giving others who were categorized as non-nationals under the 1988 census the “choice” to leave the country or face imprisonment. Some fled to avoid falling victim to arbitrary arrest and detention. The security forces harassed many ethnic Nepalis, in some cases destroying their homes. The authorities forced the majority of those who became refugees into exile by intimidating them into signing so-called “voluntary migration forms.”19 A young man’s testimony was typical of the accounts refugees gave to Human Rights Watch of the circumstances of their departure from Bhutan:

The army took all the people from their houses. The army came to my house many times. My father left the house and went to India. My brother and two sisters worked in the government service. The army sent us the form issued by the government [voluntary migration form]. They said that we had to go out. They said if you go now you will get some money. Some people got a little money. On the way [as we left Bhutan] there were many police. We were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave. Only one member of my family signed. My mother gave her thumbprint.20

Some of the ethnic Nepalis who fled or were expelled from Bhutan settled in India, but most refugees ended up in Nepal.21 UNHCR has provided assistance to the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal since 1992.22 There are currently more than 106,000 Bhutanese refugees living in seven refugee camps in Nepal.23

1 For a more detailed analysis of the developments leading up to the Bhutanese refugee crisis, see Tang Lay Lee, “Refugees from Bhutan: Nationality, Statelessness, and the Right to Return,” International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 10, no. 1-2 (1998), p. 118. See also Human Rights Watch, “We Don’t Want to Be Refugees Again,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper for the Fourteenth Ministerial Joint Committee of Bhutan and Nepal,May 19, 2003,; Human Rights Watch, Bhutan/Nepal –  Trapped by Inequality: Bhutanese Refugee Women in Nepal, vol. 15, no. 8(C), September 2003,

2 According to the 2005 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan, the population of Bhutan is 634,982. The census does not provide population statistics by ethnicity. Estimates of the ethnic breakdown of the population are a source of considerable controversy, and range from 10 to 28 percent for the Ngalongs, 30 to 40 percent for the Sharchhops, and 25 to 52 percent for the ethnic Nepalis. See Michael Hutt, “Bhutan's Crisis of Identity”, The World Book Year Book (London: World Book Inc., 1994), pp. 65-66. According to the U.S. State Department, the Ngalongs and Sharchhops together account for about 50 percent of the population, and the ethnic Nepalis for about 35 percent of the population, with the remaining 15 percent indigenous tribal people. U.S. State Department, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, “Background Note: Bhutan,” January 2007, (accessed January 16, 2007).

3 The ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan are often referred to as Lhotshampas, which translates as “people of the south” (just as Sharchhops translates as “people of the east”). However, after the eviction of tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, the government instituted a policy of resettling Drukpas on land formerly owned by the ethnic Nepalis (see section V of this report). As a result, the term Lhotshampa no longer exclusively denotes ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, but also includes those Drukpas living in southern Bhutan. This report will therefore use the term ethnic Nepalis, or Nepali speakers, to distinguish this group from the Drukpas.

4 Under the 1958 Nationality Law, foreigners who had resided in Bhutan for at least 10 years and who owned agricultural land in Bhutan were eligible to apply for Bhutanese citizenship after taking an oath of loyalty to the king. Foreigners who had served satisfactorily in government service for at least five years and who had resided in Bhutan for at least 10 years were also eligible to apply for Bhutanese citizenship, as were foreign women married to Bhutanese men. Children of Bhutanese fathers acquired Bhutanese citizenship by descent.

5 D.N.S. Dhakal and C. Strawn, Bhutan: A Movement in Exile (Jaipur: Nirala Publications, 1994), p. 151. Bhutan is governed by the king and the cabinet, which consists of the Council of Ministers and the Royal Advisory Council. The king nominates all cabinet ministers. Until recently all political parties were forbidden, but a draft constitution released in 2005 paves the way for a process of democratization. Bhutan’s first elections are scheduled for 2008. See section V for a more detailed discussion of Bhutan’s transition to a two-party democracy.

6 Ministry of Home Affairs, The Southern Problem: Threat to a Nation’s Survival (Thimpu, Bhutan, May 1993), pp. 41. Referring to the millions of ethnic Nepalis in India, the government raised the specter of a “relentless tide of the Nepali diaspora” imposing “a state of democratic siege on Bhutan” (ibid., pp. 37, 41). The government asserted that “the southern Bhutan problem is neither a movement for democracy nor an issue concerning human rights. It is simply an attempt by an ethnic community to turn themselves into a majority through illegal immigration in order to take over political power” (ibid., p. 34). Developments in the region no doubt contributed to these fears. In 1975, the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim ceased to be an independent state and merged with India, following a referendum in which the Nepali migrants, who had come to outnumber the Buddhist Sikkimese, were instrumental. In the mid-1980s the Gorkha National Liberation Front led an ultimately unsuccessful but violent campaign in North Bengal in India, on Bhutan’s western border, for an independent Nepali state. Finally, in 1990 Nepal’s democracy movement reduced the status of Nepal’s king to that of a constitutional monarch. For a detailed analysis of the ruling Drukpas’ perception that Bhutan’s identity was threatened by the ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, see Michael Hutt, Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood, and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan (Oxford and New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).

7 The government argued that the tighter citizenship requirements were “all that stands between overwhelming demographic pressures and the survival of the Bhutanese people as a distinct political and cultural entity.” Ministry of Home Affairs, The Southern Problem, p. 39. A new Marriage Act, adopted in 1980, was intended to form part of this barrier by deterring further immigration. It imposed heavy burdens on all Bhutanese citizens marrying foreigners. Bhutanese citizens who worked for the Bhutanese government were denied any promotions from the day of their marriage to a foreigner, and were excluded altogether from employment in the ministry of foreign affairs and the national defense department. They were also denied facilities provided by the state to other Bhutanese citizens, such as distribution of land, cash loans, grants of seeds and oxen, grants of capital, medical treatment abroad, and government assistance for education and training abroad. The 1977 Citizenship Act had already repealed the provision in the 1958 Nationality Act according to which women married to Bhutanese men were entitled to Bhutanese citizenship by virtue of their marriage; under the 1977 Act such women had to apply for Bhutanese citizenship like any other foreigner.

8 Act on Grant of Citizenship in Bhutan, 1977, arts. Ka 1 and Ka 2.

9 Act on Grant of Citizenship in Bhutan, 1977, art. Ka 3. Since most ethnic Nepalis had very little contact with Drukpas, and therefore had little or no knowledge of Dzongkha, this requirement was difficult to meet for ethnic Nepalis, even if they had lived in Bhutan all their lives. Dhakal and Strawn, Bhutan: A Movement in Exile, pp. 172-173.

10 Act on Grant of Citizenship in Bhutan, 1977, art. Kha 2.

11 Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985, art. 2.

12 The requirements for eligibility for citizenship by naturalization under the 1985 Act are: residence in Bhutan of 15 years for government employees and children with one Bhutanese parent, and 20 years for all others; the period of residence must be registered in the government records; proficiency  in Dzongkha; good knowledge of the culture, customs, traditions, and history of Bhutan; good moral character; no record of imprisonment for criminal offences; and no record of having spoken against the king, country, and people of Bhutan. The 1985 Act grants the government of Bhutan the right to reject any application for naturalization without giving reasons. Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985, art. 4.

13 Bhutan Citizenship Act, 1985, art. 3.

14 Amnesty International, “Bhutan: Forced Exile,” AI Index: ASA 14/04/94, August 1994. The 1988 census placed people into one of seven categories (or “forms”): F1 (genuine Bhutanese citizens), F2 (returned migrants, i.e. people who left Bhutan and then returned), F3 (people who were not around at the time of the census), F4 (non-national women married to Bhutanese men, and their children), F5 (non-national men married to Bhutanese women, and their children), F6 (legally adopted children), and F7 (non-nationals). Only those people who could prove that they resided in Bhutan in 1958 were categorized as F1. The Bhutanese authorities applied exceedingly strict criteria in this regard. For example, people who had documents proving residence before and after 1958, but not 1958 itself, were categorized as F2. People who had no documents to prove residence in 1958 frequently had their citizenship card confiscated by the census officials. See ibid., and D. B. Thronson, “Cultural Cleansing: A Distinct National Identity and the Refugee from Southern Bhutan,” Kathmandu: INHURED International, August 1993, (accessed January 24, 2007), p. 11.

15 Perhaps the most controversial aspect was the requirement that all men wear the gho, a one-piece tunic, and all women wear the kira, a one-piece ankle-length dress. These outfits had never been worn by the ethnic Nepalis and were unsuited to the subtropical climate in southern Bhutan. The policy was strictly enforced; failure to wear the traditional dress outside the home led to on the spot fines or even imprisonment. See Thronson, Cultural Cleansing, p. 20.

16 Tessa Piper, “The Exodus of Ethnic Nepalis from Southern Bhutan,” 1 April 1995, (accessed January 24, 2007), section 3.3.

17 Amnesty International, “Bhutan: Human Rights Violations against the Nepali-speaking Population in the South,” AI Index: ASA 14/04/92, December 1992.

18 Piper, “The Exodus of Ethnic Nepalis from Southern Bhutan,” section 5.

19 Amnesty International, “Bhutan: Forced Exile,” AI Index: ASA 14/04/94, August 1994. Many ethnic Nepalis were threatened with large fines or imprisonment if they failed to comply. Some received monetary compensation for their land in Bhutan, but frequently the compensation represented only a fraction of the value of the land. Ibid.

20 Human Rights Watch interview (B1), Kathmandu, November 7, 2006.

21 While some refugees made their own way to Nepal, the Indian authorities transported others to the India-Nepal border. Gerrard Khan, “Citizenship and Statelessness in South Asia,” New Issues in Refugee Research, UNHCR Working Paper no. 47, October 2001, (accessed January 24, 2007). Estimates of the number of Bhutanese refugees in India range from 15,000 to 30,000. See U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2006: Bhutan,” March 6, 2007, (accessed January 25, 2007); Farzana Shaikh, “Nepal: Early Warning Analysis,” Writenet Report, August 2004, (accessed January 25, 2007); S. Chandrasekharan, “Bhutan – Bhutanese Refugees: Repatriation Chances Look Bleak,” South Asia Analysis Group, Note 212, February 19, 2004, (accessed January 25, 2007); Minorities at Risk, “Assessment for Lhotshampas in Bhutan,” December 2003, (accessed January 25, 2007).

22 UNHCR-Nepal, “Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal,” August 2003.

23 Six of the refugee camps (Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Beldangi II-extension; Timai, Goldhap, and Khudunabari) are in Jhapa district, and one camp (Sanischare) is in neighboring Morang district, in eastern Nepal. UNHCR and the government of Nepal are currently conducting a census in the refugee camps to establish the precise number of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal (see section XII below). UNHCR estimated that in 2005 there were 106,200 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. See UNHCR, “Global Report 2005,” (Geneva, 1 June 2006), (accessed January 25, 2007), p. 326.