Real refugees want to go back to Bhutan

Senior Bhutanese have lived in refugee camps in Nepal for three decades, and want their children to return

For the past month, Nepal has been rocked by a scandal involving former ministers and officials who swindled hundreds of people offering to take them to the US posing as refugees from Bhutan. But real refugees who have lived in camps in eastern Nepal for over three decades say they are still pining to return to their homeland.

More than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were evicted from the land of their birth by the Thimpu regime 1990-92, transported across India and dumped in eastern Nepal. Most have been resettled in seven western countries with the United States taking the majority. 

About 5,000 elderly refugees still remain in the camps, and say that they want to see their children one last time, and be allowed to die in their homeland.   

“I want to go back to Bhutan, but Bhutan doesn't let us,” says Sanmaya Gurung, 82, who, like many Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, called Lhotshampa, has been living in a refugee camp in Nepal since 1990. “I don’t know how much longer I will live, but I want to die in my motherland.”

Bhutanese refugees
Sanmaya Gurung

Sanmaya’s family was evicted by the Bhutanese regime for being ethnic Nepali, but her children and relatives have been resettled overseas.

Dal Bahadur Karki was born and raised in a farm in Gelephu in Bhutan, but was thrown out in 1992. He has been living in Goldhap refugee camp of  Jhapa district in Nepal. His four sons and four daughters have all been resettled in the US.

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Karki reaches into his pocket to show a phone and says, "They have given me this mobile. But what's the point? It’s just their voice, they don't come here in person.”

Karki’s wife died recently in the camp, and he made a pavilion in her memory, naming it after her. "When my time comes, I hope my sons come to Nepal to remember me,” adds Karki. “But I also want to see the country where I was born and touch its soil one last time.” 

Bhutanese refugees
Dal Bahadur Karki

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 113,500 Bhutanese refugees were resettled in eight countries, including in the US, Australia, Canada, and European nations. The Lhotshampa were denied citizenship over restrictions imposed by the dominant Drukpa community that rules Bhutan.

Unlike many others, Karki and Sanmaya refused third country resettlement because they still hoped to return to Bhutan some day. So did

72-year-old Nilamaya Rai who waits by her mobile phone to talk to her two sons in the US, but they rarely call. Occasionally, the younger son sends money which supports Nilamaya and her husband.

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“Ever since I refused to be resettled overseas, and said I wanted to go back to Bhutan, my sons refused to talk to me,” explains Nilamaya. "When I die, neither of my sons will be with me, nor will it be in my own country."

Bhutanese refugees
Nilamaya Rai

With only elderly people left at the camps, and after the third-country resettlement program was closed in 2016, support for the camps has been cut. UNHCR which had been operating in Jhapa for 28 years closed in 2020.

T. B. Rai, secretary at the Beldangi Refugee Camp tells us: “For the remaining refugees to have proper food, they either need to receive money from abroad or break rocks in the Ratua River. Most do not have enough to eat.”

The scandal involving hundreds of Nepalis paying hefty sums to senior government officials to get fake refugee certification to be resettled in the US has enraged the real refugees about what both Bhutan and Nepal have done to them. 

Around the refugee camp, there is talk of some genuine Bhutanese refugees who sold their documents to Nepalis. Some say many Nepalis posing as refugees went to the US and other countries when the resettlement started in 2007 to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, the UK and the Netherlands. 

The Beldangi camp in Jhapa still houses 4,966 Bhutanese refugees, 2,688 men and 2,278 women. Only 2,004 renewed their refugee identity cards this year.

Translated by Shrijan Pandey from the Nepali original published in