Bhutanese women who are living as refugees in Nepal, many for more than a decade, confront not only the hardship of life in refugee camps, but also the injustice of gender-based violence and discrimination. Refugee women and girls have reported rape, sexual assault, polygamy, trafficking, domestic violence, and child marriage in the camps. Women suffering domestic violence are unable to obtain safety or their full share of humanitarian aid because of discriminatory refugee registration procedures and inadequate protection measures. The registration system also prevents married refugee women from applying for repatriation or rations independently and prohibits them from registering children not fathered by a refugee.
More than one hundred thousand Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees live in seven refugee camps jointly administered by Nepal and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in southeastern Nepal. The refugees fled or were forcibly evicted from their homes in Bhutan in the early 1990s, when the Bhutanese government introduced highly discriminatory citizenship policies targeting the ethnic Nepalese population. For twelve years, the government of Bhutan has asserted that the refugees are not Bhutanese nationals or are voluntary migrants who relinquished their citizenship when they left Bhutan. The governments of Bhutan and Nepal finally initiated a process for verifying and categorizing refugees in 2001. This process has drawn international criticism for lacking transparency, excluding UNHCR, and failing to assess refugees’ claims to Bhutanese citizenship fairly.
In the camps, UNHCR and the government of Nepal have failed to protect refugee women’s rights adequately. A key source of this failure is the continued use of a registration and ration distribution system based on household cards listed under the name of the male household head. Human Rights Watch interviewed Bhutanese refugee women who had suffered domestic violence and who, despite having separated from their husbands, were not able to obtain their own ration cards. Most instead made ad hoc arrangements with the refugee camp management to collect their food rations separately, thus relying on the mercy of the management rather than a system fair to women. These women encountered problems accessing rations meant to be shared within one household such as stoves, blankets, and soap. They were unable to obtain separate housing, leaving them to find refuge with other family members in already overcrowded huts or to create makeshift arrangements with partitions.
Following investigations of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers in refugee camps in West Africa, several cases of sexual exploitation involving refugee aid workers surfaced in Nepal in October 2002. A subsequent investigation led to findings indicating negligence by UNHCR and the government of Nepal in preventing and responding to widespread and long-standing gender-based violence in the camps. Victims encountered inadequate support services and a male-dominated refugee camp leadership that often ignored gender-based violence or meted out harmful settlements.
Since October 2002, UNHCR has made encouraging progress in many areas of implementing a coordinated prevention and response plan to gender-based violence in the camps. UNHCR conducted an immediate investigation and invested resources into addressing gender-based violence. UNHCR and Nepal took measures to introduce new reporting and referral systems, improve security, increase the numbers of field-level UNHCR staff by 25 percent, amend the code of conduct for employees of UNHCR and implementing partners, including refugee aid workers, and pursue remedies through the Nepalese criminal justice system.
The biggest gap in the response to gender-based violence has been the handling of perhaps the most pervasive problem in the camps: domestic violence. While domestic violence cases involving hospitalization reach UNHCR, “less serious” cases, including psychological abuse or a pattern of arguments in which the male partner regularly hit, slapped, or otherwise used physical violence, are still often handled by refugee camp management and the Refugee Coordination Unit (RCU) of the government of Nepal. Despite improvements in awareness and procedures for handling sexual exploitation and rape, refugee women suffering domestic violence still struggle to push their cases through the camp management bureaucracy. The methods that camp management and the RCU employ to resolve domestic violence cases focus on reconciliation and inadequately address women’s own wishes, safety, and access to services. Women’s inability to obtain a separate ration card or independent housing exacerbates these problems, and exposes them to further violence.
Limitations in Nepalese law and UNHCR policies also obstruct full protection for survivors of gender-based violence and women and girls’ ability to seek redress through the criminal justice system. No existing Nepalese law specifically addresses domestic violence. Furthermore, a thirty-five-day statute of limitations under Nepalese law for registering rape and sexual offense cases with the police has allowed many assailants to escape criminal prosecution. This short statute of limitations is one reason that the refugee aid workers and Nepalese government employees accused of sexual exploitation in October 2002 have not been prosecuted. Inside the camps, many victims and perpetrators of gender-based violence continue to live close to each other. UNHCR has cited constraints such as lack of space in the already overcrowded camps and concerns that relocation would constitute collective punishment of the families of alleged perpetrators. Victims have the option of relocating, but as they are reluctant to leave their neighbors and community, they perceive such relocation as further punishment.
These problems occur in the context of a protracted refugee situation and flawed categorization process that puts refugees at risk of statelessness. In June 2003, the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments announced the results of a verification and categorization process that lacked transparency and fell far short of international standards. The format of the interviews prevented women from fully participating in the verification and categorization process and forced those who suffered sexual violence in Bhutan to recount their traumas in front of all-male panels of Bhutanese and Nepalese government representatives. The governments of Bhutan and Nepal announced that in the first camp to be categorized, only 2.5 percent of refugees will have the option to return to Bhutan with full citizenship, while the rest face an uncertain future.
International law protects the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality and establishes state responsibility to provide protection against violence, to punish perpetrators of violence, and to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Both Nepal and Bhutan must fulfill their commitments to protect the human rights of women and children as demonstrated by their ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As member states of the United Nations, they are also bound to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is recognized as reflecting customary international law.
The government of Nepal and UNHCR should act decisively to protect women from discrimination and violence, including by improving the response to domestic violence, amending the camp registration system, and promoting changes in Nepalese domestic law. These actions are not only important remedies for Bhutanese refugee women in Nepal, but also set an important precedent for the implementation of UNHCR guidelines addressing gender-based violence in refugee situations globally.
Bhutan and Nepal must also resolve the refugee situation through a timely and fair process that adheres to international standards and protects the rights of all refugees, including women and children. Both countries should ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and other major international human rights treaties.
This report is based on interviews with 112 refugees in the following camps in Jhapa and Morang districts of southeastern Nepal during March and April 2003: Khudanabari, Beldangi I, Beldangi II, Timai, Goldhap, and Sanischare. Of these 112 interviews, thirty-seven were with refugees serving on elected camp management committees, members of refugee-run nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the camps, teachers, or health workers. Human Rights Watch conducted an additional thirty-eight interviews with concerned United Nations agencies and NGOs, including the Geneva, Kathmandu, and Bhadrapur offices of UNHCR, all the aid agencies working as implementing partners in the camps, UNICEF, refugee advocacy groups, and Nepalese NGOs. We also conducted nine interviews with Nepalese government officials and police, including the foreign minister and camp-level administrators of the RCU. In New York, Human Rights Watch interviewed representatives of Bhutan to the United Nations.
All names and identifying information of the refugees interviewed have been changed to protect their confidentiality. For the same reason, certain identifying information has been withheld for other interviewees where necessary. In this report, “child” refers to anyone under the age of eighteen.