After traveling from camps in what they call their ´long march´ home, 15,000 ethnic Nepalese refugees — Lhotshampas — are stuck at the border of Nepal and India, waiting to return to their homes in Bhutan. Since 15 June, checkpoints have been sealed and, following rising tension between the border police and refugees, three people are dead and 100 are injured. (11-JULY-07)
By Caroline Zilk from Index on Censorship
Stranded on the west side of the Mechi Bridge, the Kantipur National Daily reports that the refugees are unable to return to their homes. The deaths were a result of an Indian border control officer firing shots into the crowd. Lhotshampas — which means southerners in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan — are perhaps the largest refugee generations of all time and they have been waiting to go home for over a decade.
The violent clash at the border has ended, and the complaints of the Lhotshampa people have been forwarded to officials in New Delhi. However, no other action has been taken on behalf of the Lhotshampa people since October 2006 when the United States government offered to resettle 60,000 or more refugees. But most Lhotshampas say their first choice is to go home.
Human Rights Watch praised the US’s efforts, but also called for more action. “…the United States and other resettlement countries should expand an information campaign in the camps to reiterate that the choice of resettlement is voluntary and does not in any way extinguish the right of return,” they said in a report issued on 31 May.
Bhutan itself is a small, landlocked South Asian country with an estimated population of 672,425. Nestled between India and the People’s Republic of China, the government is one of the last remaining examples of an absolute monarch with a feudal order. Although the country is small, the population is – or was once – extremely diverse. Unfortunately, diversity and racial issues are at the heart of the Lhotshampas’ problem.
Two acts, the Marriage Act and the Citizenship Act, were introduced in 1958 and were specifically targeted at the Lhotshampas as the Bhutanese government began striving towards race purification. They claimed that their small country could not support diversity, and furthermore that diversity was hindering social growth.
The Marriage Act denied citizenship to anyone whose mother was originally from outside of the country, even if she was granted citizenship. This was a problem for many Lhotshampas whose mothers were Indian or Nepalese. The Citizenship Act cited three ways Bhutanese citizenship could be granted: through birth, through registration, and through naturalisation only. The act specifically stated that Lhotshampas much provide documentary evidence of their presence within the country and allow their name to be registered in the census register. The act also stated that citizens who left the country would not be able to freely return.
In 1988 the marriage act and citizenship act were heavily enforced. Over 125,000 Lhotshampas, a sixth of the the total population of Bhutan, were evicted from their homes and forced from their land by the government. Their first stop was in India. However, the Indian government wanted nothing to do with the problem and transported most of the Lhotshampas in vans and trucks over the border to Nepal.
According to Nepal News, as of 2001 there were over 98,886 people in camps managed by the Nepalese government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There were another estimated 5,00 Lhotshampas living outside of camps in Nepal and about 20,000 living in India.
The condition of the camps is questionable. Schooling is provided for Lhotshampa children, but there is a lack of motivation to learn due to lack of opportunity. No jobs are available for residents of the camps. Health is also an issue and has recently suffered due to the removal of adequate cooking equipment. Another serious problem is domestic and sexual violence. Many girls say they do not feel safe inside the camps alone – especially at night.
In 1989, Tek Nath Rizal, a member of the Royal Advisory Council, brought the Lhotshampas’ plight before the Bhutan Department of Census and Immigration. He was advised to submit a petition to the King. In his written petition he asked for restrictions from the Citizenship and Marriage Acts to be lifted, and to allow the refugees to return to Bhutan.
Although this was a patriotic appeal, the government had a strong negative reaction to the petition. Rizal was removed from his government position and was arrested. Humiliated, he settled in Nepal, in the Jhapa district close to some Lhotshampa camps. It was there he was abducted by Bhutanese government agents and put on trial in Bhutan where he was accused of sedition and treason.
Upon Rizal’s release from jail in late 1999 (ten years after his initial sentence) Amnesty International said, ´We hope the release of Tek Nath Rizal will contribute to a just and lasting solution to the problems faced by tens of thousands of people currently in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, who claim they have the right to return to Bhutan.´
Certainly, no one has sacrificed more for the Bhutanese refugees so far. India still refuses any aid.
The Minister for External Affairs in India, Pranab Mukherejee, explained that allowing the refugees to enter India, and subsequently enter Bhutan would cause a demographic imbalance. India continues to refuse to be any help to the refugees, although many feel that because India transported them to Nepal, they should be the ones to transport them back to Bhutan.
Some human rights organisations have expressed concern over the condition of the marching refugees. UNHCR representative in Nepal, Abraham Abraham said, ´This is the right of the Bhutanese refugee to carry out Long March but it should not jeopardise the safety and security of women and children.´
Many organisations have condemned the actions of Bhutan and India regarding the Lhotshampa people and have called for the Bhutanese government to allow the refugees to return to their rightful home.