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V. Conditions in Bhutan

Much of what makes a repatriation a success or failure hinges upon what happens to refugees once they have returned home. This is a particularly important issue for Bhutanese refugees who may be returning to serious conditions of discrimination, or who may be prevented from returning to their home areas or land.

Access to and Presence of UNHCR

In order to ensure returns are a success, UNHCR must have “direct and unhindered access to returnees,” which enables the agency to “monitor fulfillment of the amnesties, guarantees or assurances on the basis of which the refugees have returned.”62 One refugee woman, Lakshmi C., emphasized the importance of this access, noting, “I think UNHCR should have an office in southern Bhutan, not just in Thimphu.”63

Contrary to these standards, UNHCR has not been invited nor has the agency effectively pushed to be able to establish a presence in Bhutan or to facilitate the return of the refugees. UNHCR has been working with this refugee population for over a decade and requires cooperation from Bhutan and Nepal in order to fulfill its protection mandate. Especially as the conditions of return suggest that the legal and property rights of refugees may not be respected, the presence of an independent monitoring body is essential to promote return in safety and dignity.

As the Repatriation Handbook makes clear, where

there is evidence that the freedom or security of returnees is at risk due to a lack of state protection, UNHCR should do whatever it can to remedy the situation and relieve the plight of refugees. UNHCR must intervene where human rights abuses or severe discrimination come to light.... Where problems and abuses are not isolated and there appears to be a risk of future occurrences, UNHCR should not promote further repatriation, until the problems [sic] is rectified.64

Many refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed expressed a deep desire to return to Bhutan, but they also expressed anxiety about the conditions of return. They reflected a wide range of opinions, from those who wished to go back under any circumstance, to those with serious reservations about safety. One refugee man told Human Rights Watch:

All the Bhutanese should be taken back to their original homesteads. No family should be left behind. But before we are taken back, the government has to be very clear—under no circumstances should we return to the same conditions that made us leave. No discrimination should be there—all Bhutanese should be united and ruled by a single law.65

Existing discrimination in Bhutan and the conditions that will likely be attached to the opportunity to return raise serious questions about whether refugees will likely truly be able to achieve a voluntary, safe, and durable return. As this briefing paper documents, the human rights of ethnic Nepalese are regularly violated in Bhutan, especially in terms of the rights to a nationality, equality, education, employment, and freedom to practice one’s culture.

The governments of Bhutan and Nepal have not made any formal announcement as to the conditions of return, but according to a Human Rights Watch interview with the Foreign Minister of Nepal, camps are being built in three regions of Bhutan for the returning refugees. The returnees will be guaranteed two years of employment, and under the existing laws, after two years they will be allowed to apply for citizenship.66 The transit camps raise serious concerns that not all of the refugees will be able to exercise their right to return to their own lands and regions of origin, and that they could be forced into unsafe living conditions. An often repeated plea among the refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed was that “we should be able to go back to our own homes on our own land.”67

Reflecting the widespread fear that they will be separated upon return and sent to isolated parts of the country with terrain different from the southern plains where they originally lived, a forty-four-year-old farmer told Human Rights Watch, “one has to go back, but without security of life and land, it’s difficult to go back. I’d like to go back to my original homestead, but if I’m taken to some other home, it should be something I can be satisfied with, not some hilly, snowy place.”68

Without full citizenship, returning refugees will be vulnerable to regular discrimination and harassment. As noted above, the current citizenship laws impose a two-year waiting period before returnees can obtain full citizenship, a dangerous provision that, if applied, would prevent refugees from enjoying their human rights and would expose them to the risk of statelessness should the Bhutanese government decide to reject their citizenship applications. Furthermore, if they must reapply for citizenship under the existing laws, Human Rights Watch is concerned that refugees are likely to be denied citizenship anyway. This is because the 1985 Bhutan Citizenship Act requires up to twenty years of residency registered in the records of the Department of Immigration and Census, and proficiency in a language that most refugees are not able to speak, among other strict criteria. Lastly, there is uncertainty about whether refugees deemed to have committed crimes, or those who have been politically active and are considered “anti-national,” upon their return to Bhutan, will be subjected by the government to arbitrary arrest and detention, limits on their freedom of expression and their freedom from unlawful interference with privacy, family, or home.69

Given the potential for serious human rights abuse in Bhutan, some refugees are fearful about returning home. Refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed who had faced severe persecution and violence in Bhutan felt that it would be difficult for them to return. Kira Maya R., a forty-year-old mother of three who was raped in Bhutan said, “How can we go back to Bhutan if the policies don’t change? If it remains the same laws, I will not go. There are many chances that the same thing will happen to my daughter as happened to me. We should not be forcefully taken back…. I’m afraid.”70

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about adherence to the standards of voluntary repatrition in conditions of safety and dignity because of the serious human rights abuses that ethnic Nepalese currently living in Bhutan face. Allowing for a UNHCR monitoring presence will be crucial, as will a significant change in policy by the government of Bhutan, in order to ensure that the refugees return to a situation where they will be protected from the discrimination and abuse that ethnic Nepalese suffer in Bhutan, as documented in the following section.

Continuing Discrimination in Bhutan

In April 2003, Human Rights Watch interviewed ethnic Nepalese who currently live in southern Bhutan. The location of these interviews is being withheld as many of those interviewed feared that they would be harassed or imprisoned if the government found out their identity. Some of those interviewed were highly educated, but were unable to find employment because of how they were classified in Bhutan’s census (discussed below). In many cases, although these individuals stayed in Bhutan after the mass exodus in the early 1990s, they were persecuted because members of their family fled as refugees. As explained below, sometimes entire families were denationalized when a single member of their household left the country, and in 1998 the government of Bhutan passed a resolution requiring the dismissal of relatives of “anti-nationals” from government jobs.71

Many of the human rights abuses Human Rights Watch documented during these interviews are related to a discriminatory and complex classification system for individuals living in Bhutan. This classification system was first imposed by the government during the 1988 census in accordance with the 1985 Bhutan Citizenship Act. This census classified people into one of seven categories: genuine Bhutanese, returned migrants (those who had left Bhutan but returned), drop-outs (those not available during the time of the census), non-national women married to a Bhutanese man (or their children), non-national men married to a Bhutanese woman (or their children), legally adopted children, and non-nationals (migrants and illegal settlers). Individuals living in Bhutan refer to their placement into one of these categories as their “census status.”

Some interviewees reported that they were unable to obtain a census status at all, which left them highly vulnerable to discrimination. Many interviewees stated that despite initially possessing citizenship cards and being classified as genuine Bhutanese, they were later denationalized into non-nationals, or their children were not given categories. In these cases, Bhutan is violating their right to a nationality by rendering them stateless.

Discrimination relating to citizenship status in Bhutan

Citizenship status and government documents, including a “No Objection Certificate,” are required for access to higher education, government jobs, movement through the country, registration of land, and trade licenses.72 Some of the discrimination that the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese currently suffer is related to the evictions of the early 1990s when those crossing the border were forced to sign “voluntary migration forms.” Even if only a portion of a household fled the country, their remaining relatives in Bhutan were at risk of being denationalized. Those who participated in the 1990 demonstrations against Bhutan’s policies toward the Lhotshampas, who had relatives involved with the demonstrations, or who have relatives in the refugee camps are especially at risk of harassment. As Pandu P., a forty-five-year-old man living in Bhutan, told a Human Rights Watch researcher,

In 1992, my parents had to migrate, they were asked to sign the voluntary migration forms. When my father signed, the whole family list was included…my name was also on the list. Right now I am without citizenship. I can’t get a license without the census…. I need an NOC [No Objection Certificate] and police clearance because my parents are missing. My brothers were involved in the demonstrations. I have to keep quiet—my brothers are in the refugee camps, and my parents in India.73

The story of Krishna C., who had participated in a peaceful demonstration in 1990 illustrates the ways in which the 1985 Bhutan Citizenship Act allows the arbitrary stripping of nationality. According to clause 6(c), any “citizen of Bhutan who has acquired citizenship by naturalization may be deprived of citizenship at any time if that person has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the King, Country and People of Bhutan.” Krishna C. was not only jailed and tortured for his political views, but faced statelessness upon his release. He told Human Rights Watch, “I wasn’t given back my previous job when I was released—authorities have not regularized my census. My land was given to other Bhutanese. I am without census or land…. I went to the Home Ministry in 1999, but they told me ‘your census was erased in 1991 because you were in prison.’”74

Ethnic Nepalese women in Bhutan are especially vulnerable to losing citizenship privileges. They are sometimes unable to meet the stringent requirements for proving their status because of a lack of access to documents or knowledge about government procedures. This may also affect the citizenship status of their children. For example, Bhadra Maya R., a twenty-seven year-old ethnic Nepali widow is originally from India but married a man from Bhutan ten years ago. She told Human Rights Watch,

I have no facilities [access to services] in Bhutan, I have tried to include my child for Bhutanese citizenship, I don’t want it for myself. My husband was F1 [genuine Bhutanese], and my husband’s family is living in Bhutan. Me and my child have no number at all—I have searched for all kinds of proof, but my husband’s family isn’t supporting me. They are afraid because I’m an outsider. If they say they are relatives with me, they’ll get in trouble. The mandal [village head] knows it’s all true, but I’m not supported. I need documents, but I didn’t have a court marriage. If you’re southern Bhutanese, you have problems. I don’t have a number [census status] so it’s worse. I’m fed up, I’ve stopped trying, because there is no one to help.75

As the 1985 Bhutan Citizenship Act is still in effect, returning refugees could expect to suffer problems similar to those documented by Human Rights Watch in the preceeding interviews. By virture of having lived in the refugee camps, they may still be considered “anti-nationals” and therefore not granted genuine Bhutanese status with full citizenship privileges. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that the JVT’s four-tiered categorization system may exacerbate the risks of discriminatory treatment. Of the three categories allowed to return to Bhutan (forcibly evicted, voluntary migrants, and those who have committed crimes), the latter two are currently grounds for denationalization in Bhutan under the 1985 Act, putting these groups at risk of statelessness. This is especially true because Bhutan has suggested that it won’t grant citizenship immediately, but will only let refugees apply for citizenship two years after their return.

Discrimination in employment and education

Without full citizenship privileges, ethnic Nepalese find it difficult to secure employment or sustain a livelihood. Those without NOCs are not allowed to work in government jobs, and sometimes they are prevented from working in the private sector as well. Others who own land reported not being able to register and cultivate it. One man, originally classified as a genuine Bhutanese citizen became a non-national when his brother was forcibly evicted in 1993. This resulted in a change of status for his wife, while his children do not have any category at all. Despite his qualifications as an engineer, he now works irregular jobs as a salesman. He told a Human Rights Watch researcher that, “I had to leave my job as an engineer in 1998. The district head officer wrote a letter to them [my employers] saying that as my parents had left the country, I should be fired immediately. I have a problem with employment. We’re refugees in our own country. I have no trade license. You need an NOC for that.” 76

While interviewees reported that their children were able to attend primary school in Bhutan, they said that ethnic Nepalese children face problems once they reach higher grades, appear for national exams, apply for scholarships for higher education, or apply for programs abroad. In these cases, the lack of an NOC could prevent the child from studying in Bhutan. Most interviewees felt that they had to send their children to India for further education, often at great expense. They also despaired of their children having employment opportunities upon their return. Savitri A., despite being classified as a citizen herself, worried about her husband and children, who remain without a census status after one of their family members left the country. She explained,

[Children] won’t get admission after class ten, you have to go outside to India, you can’t have a profession in Bhutan…. To pursue more education after class ten, we will have to produce the citizenship ID card. But they won’t give us this card, especially as we’re Nepali. My friend’s son got 96 percent in class ten, but he still didn’t get a scholarship. He got depressed and couldn’t study…. We’re like dead bodies in Bhutan.77

All interviewees also expressed great frustration that their repeated appeals to the king and the Home Ministry had proved unsuccessful. Meera M., whose family had lost their citizenship after one member fled Bhutan, said, “My brother tried so many times to get the NOC, but it’s not possible, he is now studying outside. You need an ID card for any type of work. You can apply for it, but they won’t say yes or no. We have sent so many applications. Four to five years pass like that.”78

Restrictions on freedom of movement

Individuals who are classified as non-nationals or who do not have classifications at all are not allowed to cross checkpoints in Bhutan, which are situated on several major roadways. Crossing these checkpoints is essential for those who need to go to the capital, visit relatives, conduct business, or visit their family lands. Adding insult to injury, people’s inability to cross checkpoints makes it difficult for them to appeal their census status or otherwise claim their citizenship in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. All vehicles are stopped at these checkpoints, and the interviewees also said that ethnic Nepalese, whether they have documents or not, are systematically profiled and ordered to come out and show all proof of citizenship to the checkpost guards. They may also be interrogated. For example, Dinesh B. said he is often interrogated at checkpoints. He told Human Rights Watch:

If we’re trying to cross a checkpost, we’ll have to know the name of the present village headman, four to five village people, present marriage certificates, and know the name of the subdivision officer and district head officer. While we’re on a bus, they’ll single out the southern Bhutanese to come out and ask them their thram number [government-issued property ID number]. From here, there are four checkposts to Thimphu. These procedures happen more often if there is any tension happening in the refugee camps, for example the time the refugees held a peace march to return to Bhutan.”79

62 UNHCR ExCom Conclusion No. 40 (1985).

63 Human Rights Watch interview with Lakshmi C., Sanischare camp, March 3, 2003.

64 Repatriation Handbook, p. 66.

65 Human Rights Watch interview with Loknath R., Khudanabari camp, March 23, 2003.

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Foreign Minister N.B. Shah, government of Nepal, Kathmandu, April 11, 2003. Though no policies have been finalized, it may be that persons classified as “forcibly evicted Bhutanese” will be allowed to return to their original homes.

67 For example, this desire was expressed in Human Rights Watch interviews with Kamala S., Beldangi II camp, March 30, 2003 and Renuka B., Beldangi I camp, March 26, 2003.

68 Human Rights Watch interview with Dev G., Khudanabari camp, March 23, 2003.

69 ICCPR, arts. 9(1) and 19(2) and 17(1).

70 Human Rights Watch interview with Kira Maya R., Khudanabari camp, March 24, 2003.

71 The government of Bhutan uses the term ngolops or “anti-national” for individuals deemed to have spoken or acted against the King, the country, or the people of Bhutan. This term has been used to refer to anybody who participated in the 1990 demonstrations as well as for those who fled the country.

72 The “No Objection Certificate” is now officially called the “Security Clearance Certificate.” However, most Bhutanese still refer to the “NOC.”

73 Human Rights Watch interview with Pandu P., Indo-Bhutan border, April 6, 2003.

74 Human Rights Watch interview with Krishna C., Indo-Bhutan border, April 6, 2003.

75 Human Rights Watch interview with Bhadra Maya R., Indo-Bhutan border, April 5, 2003.

76 Human Rights Watch interview with Dinesh B., Indo-Bhutan border, April 5, 2003.

77 Human Rights Watch interview with Savitri A., Indo-Bhutan border, April 6, 2003.

78 Human Rights Watch interview with Meera M., Indo-Bhutan border, April 5, 2003.

79 Human Rights Watch interview with Dinesh B., Indo-Bhutan border, April 5, 2003.

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