Of the approximately 107,000 in refugee camps in Nepal, the U.S. agreed to resettle 60,000, and Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Denmark approved the resettlement of 10,000 each.
Information from a fact sheet developed by the Center for Victims of Torture, includes brief facts on the Bhutanese history of trauma, resettlement, culture, language, family structure, physical and mental health issues, and resources in Minnesota.
Historical Background of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal
The Bhutanese refugees are descendants of Nepalese migrants that settled in Southern Bhutan in the late 1890’s. Originally recruited by the Government of Bhutan to clear the jungles of Southern Bhutan in the late 1890’s, they were called Lhotshampas, meaning ‘People from the South’. Over time the Lhotshampas prospered in Bhutan and became high-ranking government officials and educators. According to the 1988 census they made up 45% of the population of Bhutan.
In 1958 the Bhutanese government passed the Citizenship Act, which granted the Lhotshampas the right to Bhutanese citizenship. Every citizen was issued a land tax receipt. From 1958 to 1985 the Bhutanese government introduced integration programs and incentives for intermarriage between the Lhotshampas and other ethnic groups of Bhutan. However, the Buddhist Druk majority became increasingly concerned over the growing population and power of the mainly Hindu Lhotshampas.
In 1988 the government introduced a census, which took place only in Southern Bhutan. It required that each citizen produce the 1958 land tax receipt. Following this census the Lhotshampas were re-classified as ‘illegal immigrants’ despite having produced land tax receipts from 1958.
In 1989 King Jigme Singey Wangchuk adopted a “One Bhutan, One People” policy. Nepali language was removed from school curricula and it was mandatory for the entire population to wear the national dress of the north. The southern Bhutanese resisted the policy, as there was still a strong attachment to their Nepalese cultural heritage. Demonstrations ensued and the government began to crack down on what they deemed were ‘anti-nationals’ from Southern Bhutan. There were widespread reports by Lhotshampas of arrests, detention, rape, and torture. They reported being forced to sign ‘voluntary migration’ forms. By 1991 thousands had started to flee for Nepal via India by truck. In 1992 UNHCR established the first camps in Eastern Nepal built to house the more than 105,000 refugees. An additional 20,000 refugees (estimate) fled to other parts of Nepal and India. An interesting fact about this population is that they all arrived at roughly the same time in Nepal. There were not waves of refugees arriving at different times over the years as in many other refugee situations. Fifteen rounds of talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan on the Bhutanese refugees’ right to return have yielded no results. Not one single refugee has been repatriated. In 2007 the government of Nepal accepted the option of third country resettlement. Resettlement was hotly contested and even violent up until this past year. Since the first departures to the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand last year, negative attitudes toward resettlement have changed dramatically. Many of the vehemently anti-resettlement leaders are themselves now applying for resettlement. Some small groups are still actively opposed to resettlement in the camps. Settlement Considerations: This is a very diverse group of refugees in terms of life experience. Some have gone to University and worked outside the camps. They can be highly educated and have lived in ‘westernized’ conditions. Others have never left the camps and have had no exposure to western amenities. The refugees have been dependent on aid organizations to meet their basic needs for seventeen years. It can be very challenging to shift attitudes and expectations for refugees who have spent so much of their lives in refugee camps The Bhutanese refugees have many questions and concerns about their legal status in Canada. Their citizenship was lost in Bhutan and there is concern that this could happen to them again someday. There is hope of returning to Bhutan for many, even if it is just to visit.
The main religion of the Bhutanese refugees is Hinduism (estimated at 60%) followed by other religions including Buddhism, Kirat and Christianity respectively. As far as marriage goes, there is some cultural practice whereby young girls and young boys select their partners and later consult their parents accordingly. In many cases parents do agree and love marriages take place. Arranged marriage still exists although this is mainly practiced among the pre-literate and elderly population.
The caste system is very prevalent and very complex among the Bhutanese refugees. It is the same system followed in Nepal. There are a total of 64 castes, groups and parties represented in the camps. The Hindus, who makeup the majority of the Bhutanese refugees have four castes; namely the Brahmins, Chhetris, Vaishyas and Sudras. The Brahmins are considered to be the top class followed by the Chhetris, Vaishyas and the Sudras respectively. The Sudras are considered the lowest of all castes. The Kirats are a different caste, which is also divided into sub-castes, the Rais and Limbus being the main branches. Rais and Limbus belong to the Mongolian race and look physically different.
Religious Holidays of Nepal followed by Bhutanese Refugees
Dasain (Vijaya Dasami)
This is the biggest and most widely celebrated national Hindu festival in Nepal, usually falling in early October.
There are roughly two weeks of celebrations. The main deity worshiped during Dasain is Goddess Durga.
This is another Hindu festival celebrated in Nepal and as well as India.
This is the festival of lights which falls in late October or early November. The celebrations continue for five days.
It is one of the most fascinating High Himalayan Buddhist festivals observed every year, usually in November.
Celebrating the birth of Lord Buddha in the first week of May.
Shivaratri or the night of Lord Shiva, is observed in March and celebrates Lord Shiva.