The Exile


An areial view of one of the seven UNHCR administered refugee camps in Nepal(photo:BRCR,UK)

An areial view of one of the seven UNHCR administered refugee camps in Nepal(photo:BRCR,UK)

BACKGROUND OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS:
In the late 1980s, the government of Bhutan started the actual execution of its ethnic cleansing policy. Consequently, the southern settlers known as the Lhotshampas who are ethnically Nepalis were deprived of their fundamental rights. Schools were shut down in almost all the southern districts from East to the west denying the Lhotshampas’ kids access to education. Nepali language was lifted from the school curriculum in other districts of Northern and Central regions. Royal Bhutan Army was deployed in every villages to terrorize the public. The implementation of the “Driglam Namzha” with “One Nation, One People” policy imposed the culture, dress code, language, and customs of the northern Bhutanese on the entire population.The ethnic cleansing grew out of an urge to preserve the indigenous Drukpa culture of the north of the kingdom. It may be commendable aspiration to wish to preserve a nation’s culture in a world that is homogenizing fast through pervasive western influence, but when this occurred at the expense of a large proportion of a country’s population who have a legitimate claim to citizenship, it became intolerable .This further bred frustration among the citizens in the south as they were forced to give up their traditional costumes and language. In the early 1990,nationwide public demonstration against these developments erupted. The government tried to dose the flame of voice of the Nepali speaking citizens with its all might.Those involved in these demonstrations were tagged as anti-nationals and seized their land and properties,arrested and imprisoned several hundreds of them, demolished and burnt their houses and were coerced into signing voluntary emigration forms in a language they did not understand for renouncing the Druk citizenship and finally compelled to leave their motherland.

A pathetic scene of refugees in Maidhar refugee camp in 1992.(photo:flickrs)

A pathetic scene of refugees in Maidhar refugee camp in 1992.(photo:flickrs)

These meek and helpless citizens numbering to around few hundreds then fled to India, the immediate neighbor in the south, seeking refuge and safety but unfortunately they were not given permission to set up permanent camps there. So, they moved to Nepal and set up the first refugee camp by the bank of River Kankai under Jhapa district in July 1991. Back in Bhutan, the repressive measures of the Druk (Bhutanese call Druk to Bhutan) regime continued against its citizens of the southern plains until 1992. So during these years there was a large influx of the Bhutanese to Nepal.
According to the 1951 Geneva Convention ,Section 1 and 1967 UN- Protocol, the term ‘Refugee’ applies to any person who is outside the country of their nationality because of a well-founded fear of being prosecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and is unable or, because of such fear, unwilling to avail themselves of protection of the government of their nationality.
The arbitrary decision of the Bhutanese Government to confiscate the citizenship of the Bhutanese is a gross violation of the international law, because under the UN convention on Statelessness 1949, no governments of the world can expel their bona fide citizens from their country unless they are legally accepted with full citizenship rights by another country. Universal Declaration of Human Rights by India has the provision of international obligation under its article 14 (1) to accept the Bhutanese as the refugees because the Bhutanese left their country under the well -guarded fear of prosecution due to their political opinion, religious faith and different social groups, which are the valid categories to grant asylum but India refused to accept them in the pretext of 1949 Indo-Bhutan treaty.

Situation in Maidhar Refugee Camp:

A Refugee woman in Maidhar refugee camp(photo:newint)

A Refugee woman in Maidhar refugee camp(photo:newint)

In July 1991, around 235 Bhutanese arrived at Maidhar and set up camp there. Soon the refugee population went up to 24000 by the end of that year.So, the camp was dangerously over crowded. The site itself was located in a flood sensitive area.Huts were clustered, no relief assistance was provided in the beginning. These refugees barely had anything to eat, there were no hospitals or health centers, no toilets,and safe drinking water.Refugees were compelled to drink the polluted water of the river.As a result, several dozens of these newly arrived refugee adults, youths and children died due to diarrhea, dysentery and other communicable diseases.The condition of these refugees had become worst there.There was an urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In September 1991,the Nepal government formally requested the office of the UNHCR to co-ordinate all emergency relief assistance to these homeless people from Bhutan. So,eventually UNHCR got involved. The refugees were shifted to seven UNHCR-administered camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal.
The overall maintainence of all seven camps lies with UNHCR.However, there are scores of other organisations assisting the refugees in different aspects such as Food and education, health and sanitation,community services activities, raising awareness on different areas,Till 2007 (November)There were 109,311 registered Bhutanese refugees in Nepal (Refugee Co-ordination Unit November 2007). For more details on Bhutanese refugee camps and geographical locations, demographic status, efforts of the refugees for repatriation, Nepal- Bhutan bilateral talks, JVT and many more please click here.

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