The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

30 years have passed and the Bhutanese-Nepalis, or the Lhotshampa people, remain displaced in several countries around the world, their fate hinging on the political whims of national governments. After countries such as the United States, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Norway agreed to take in the Lhotshampas, the lion’s share of the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees resettled in the United States.

Underrepresentation in the discursive space

Lhotshampa refugees account for almost 99 percent of Bhutanese Americans who remain forcibly displaced from their homeland following large-scale ethnic cleansing conducted by the Bhutanese monarchy in the 1980s to ‘purify’ the Himalayan Kingdom to create a Buddhist-only nation. After several decades, thousands of Lhotshampa refugees acquired citizenship status under the Obama administration. However, they remain desirous of being repatriated to their homeland.

Repatriation efforts for those wanting to return to their homeland have yet to be given any serious thought by the countries where the refugees resettled. In the United States, due to a dearth of scholarly discussions and limited media attention on matters concerning the Lhotshampas, the interests of this vulnerable category, as a result, have failed to carve a niche for themselves in public discourse and consequently, the political agenda of the American government.

‘Informal’ U.S.-Bhutan relations

The governments of the United States and Bhutan share a warm and cordial relationship, that remains informal by nature. Despite sharing friendly ties for several decades, the United States and Bhutan have yet to establish formal diplomatic relations. This emerges as yet another bottleneck in any probable joint collaborative efforts toward the repatriation of the Lhotshampas.

The United States has been actively involved in rendering humanitarian assistance to Bhutan. For instance, the United States donated around 600,000 COVID vaccine doses to Bhutan last year. Though Bhutan has remained a constant recipient of American foreign aid over the past few decades in important sectors like disaster management, food security, and education, matters pertaining to Lhotshampa refugees remain unresolved.

Sectarian rifts

The Lhotshampas also remain divided when it comes to resettlement. ‘Anti-resettlement refugees’ fear losing out on their dream of ever returning to Bhutan and their political cause getting lost, and have gone to the extent of even engaging in violence against those in favour of resettlement. There have been instances where anti-resettlement refugees have targeted those who were contemplating resettlement in the United States, for fear that their cause was getting diluted.

Resettlement efforts under the joint UNHCR-IOM program for the Lhotshampas were paused in 2016 when many refugees felt that getting resettled would entail absolving Bhutanese authorities of the atrocities carried out against them. Such a sectarian divide into ‘anti-settlement refugees’ and ‘pro-resettlement refugees’ has emerged as yet another bottleneck in carrying out repatriation efforts.

Despite many refugees fighting for their right to return, the United States, Nepal, as well as the UNHCR, have yet to take steps in recognition of the refugees’ right to return to their homeland.

No recognition as minorities

Also, the fact that the Bhutan government refuses to even acknowledge the Lhotshampas as a minority category makes matters more difficult. This has stalled the only ‘joint verification process’ undertaken by Nepal and Bhutan in 2001, wherein only one refugee camp in Nepal was verified for repatriating refugees.

The process began and stopped in Nepal before repatriation efforts could commence in other countries. The process was also seen to lack any transparency. It is imperative that the process of verification is again set in motion with renewed vigour, and that it takes place with transparency this time, along with a clearly-defined timeframe, stipulating the period within which the entire process of voluntary repatriation must take place.

Voluntary repatriation is key

Though the UNHCR-IOM collaboration with countries like the United States and Nepal has helped make the program a fairly successful one, efforts have remained solely confined to the practice of resettlement, rather than any work taking place for the voluntary repatriation of the Lhotshampas. In the case of the Lhotshampa refugees, the answer simply points to voluntary repatriation. However, spontaneous repatriation without any formal agreements between Bhutan, the United States, and the UNHCR is unsustainable.

It is a known fact that organisations like the UNHCR remain actively involved in facilitating the process of voluntary return for refugees around the world. Even in this context, it could play a pivotal role in repatriation efforts by carrying out the registration of returnees, providing legal aid, return assurance, arranging for their transportation, and so on. Thus, organised repatriation spearheaded by the UNHCR and in accordance with a formal agreement between Bhutan and the United States emerges as the need of the hour.

Prarthana Sen is a former Research Assistant at ORF, an independent global think tank. Her research interests include gender, sustainable development, forced displacement, and development cooperation. She is also a member of the Indian Association for Asian and Pacific Studies.