Bhutan’s refugees between hope and despair

Bhutanese pro-democracy leader Tek Nath Rizal.

It has been a long time since the government of Bhutan washed its hands off the refugees it created, and their future.

Most refugees who spent nearly two decades in camps in Nepal have been resettled in western countries, but there are still about 7,000 of us left in Nepal who are in limbo. The government of Nepal is renewing their refugee identity cards that are due to expire by mid-2022, and provide new IDs for 429 more refugees.

This is a welcome decision, and a glimmer of hope in the camps in eastern Nepal. But many of these stateless people now lack a means of livelihood, and are in deep despair. It is not clear yet if Nepal will consider the plea of all Bhutan’s people here still awaiting recognition of their refugee status.

Now that the governments of Bhutan and Nepal are in a more comfortable position to discuss bilateral issues, we in the refugee community expect Nepal to continue to engage the governments of Bhutan and India and the international community until the last stateless Bhutanese finds a home and livelihood.

If Bhutan and Nepal have an agreement on resolving the refugee issue, they should implement it promptly. If not, the two governments must together approach India — after all, the refugees were transported from Bhutan to the Nepal border across Indian territory 30 years ago.

It is an insult to the international justice system and insensitivity towards human suffering to keep people in the camp indefinitely. This delay in resolving the refugee problem is allowing the government in Thimphu to detain over 50 political prisoners indefinitely. Some of them have been incarcerated since 1990.

I myself was tortured, physically and psychologically abused in Bhutan’s jails for over ten years. They employed mind-control mechanisms to ruin me mentally. They must be using the same techniques on the remaining prisoners, damaging their minds permanently.

I have chronicled my experience in my autobiographies, especially the same methods of torture that were rampantly used by American and Soviet intelligence agencies during the cold war years. I know first hand of the pain and painful treatment of political prisoners in jails in Bhutan, locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, only taken out for menial work during harsh weather.

Police arrested me during a visit here in 1989 and the Nepal government extradited me to Bhutan, labeled me a dangerous terrorist, framing me for many malicious crimes, some of which happened after my arrest and in which I had no involvement.

They dragged me to court several times where they abused me physically and verbally, incarcerated me for a decade in wrongful and rigorous detention. Bhutan’s highest court finally declared me innocent. The king had announced that he would release me after the resolution of the refugee problem, in which I had no connection. This allowed them to delay my release.

The Thimphu regime had labeled me a ringleader of the dissident movement. It was international outcry and continuous protests by human rights organisations that forced the Bhutan government to release me. Yet, the people who were arrested and jailed for being my followers are still behind the bars. There has been no similar international pressure to get them released.

The political system of Bhutan has changed from an autocratic to democratic setup, three elections have taken place since the declaration of democracy in 2007, yet the people who asked for democratic changes in the old system are still in prison. They jailed dissidents for demanding democracy, yet absurdly, after the declaration of democracy those very people are still in detention.

Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Amnesty International visited a few prisons in Bhutan where political prisoners are detained. The visitors had assured the captives that they would facilitate a reunion with their families upon release. Those freed have found that their families in refugee camps in Nepal have all been resettled, and there is no word on their reunions. International human rights watchdogs have now stopped visiting the prisoners.

Those released from Bhutan’s jails at different times, or those without proper documents to prove Bhutanese citizenship are still languishing in the refugee camps in Nepal. They have been appealing to the government of Nepal and the UNHCR to have them reunited with their families abroad, or be granted citizenship.

The Nepal government announcement that it will issue IDs to 429 refugees has been a relief. But what is not sure is if it will also cover the Drukpa people of eastern and northern Bhutan. Besides the Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa, the Drukpa were evicted for being critical of the regime.

The problem is that Nepal does not consider the Drukpa as refugees because of their ethnicity and their inability to speak Nepali. The Drukpa in the camps need special consideration to be recognised as Bhutan’s refugees too.

There is also the issue of separated families, with some resettled in the US and other western countries, some still in refugee camps in Nepal and others back in Bhutan.  The Thimphu government still perceives family reunions as a political threat, and is not allowing them.

Abandoned by Nepal and Bhutan, many of the families resettled abroad are mentally traumatised by prolonged separation. Difficulty in adjusting to life in the West, ignorance about counseling, language issues and welfare have led many resettled Bhutanese to end their lives.

The suicide rate among former refugees is tragically high, and is a neglected problem.

Over 7,000 refugees in the refugee camps in Nepal await a resolution. Many are determined to go back to the homes they left behind in Bhutan 30 years ago. The refugee agencies supporting them in Nepal have stopped supplies, and there is pressure to assimilate into Nepali society.

This strategy of dispersing and neglecting the refugees has buried the crisis, leaving the Thimphu regime the victor and allowing it to get away with this appalling act of ethnic cleansing of its own citizens.

The governments of Bhutan and India have now barbed-wired their international border. While bilateral trade with Thimphu goes on, the border wall has stopped all travel by ordinary people on both sides of the border for their livelihood. In the name of security, the Bhutan government has confined its own people in an open prison with no access to the outside world.

Abandoned by international watchdogs, by the Thimphu regime and by New Delhi, Bhutan’s refugees are nevertheless encouraged by the steps taken by the Nepal government on IDs. But we also expect it to find a holistic and just solution to facilitate family reunions with relatives, and a return to Bhutan to those who wish to do so.

On Human Rights Day on 10 December, we urge international rights organisations to reopen their files and ask the Thimphu government to make public the list of all political prisoners and release them promptly. We demand that the governments of Bhutan and India lift physical restrictions and allow people freedom of movement.

Tek Nath Rizal is a Bhutanese pro-democracy leader, and was Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience. He has been living in Nepal since his release from Chamgang Prison in Bhutan in 1999.