Covering events from January - December 2003

A durable solution remained remote for over 100,000 refugees from southern Bhutan who have lived in refugee camps in eastern Nepal for more than 10 years. Ministerial-level meetings between Bhutan and Nepal and the announcement of results from a process to "verify" refugees produced little visible progress. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced the gradual withdrawal of his office from the camps.


A further draft of the Constitution was produced by mid-year. A National Judicial Commission was established to strengthen the system of appointing and removing judges. The first professional woman judge was appointed to Zhemgang district court.

The activities of the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Kamtapur Liberation Front, armed separatist groups from northeast India, increased tensions in southern areas. They ignored a 30 June government deadline to vacate their 20 camps or face military action. In December nearly 600 militia volunteers, including 20 women, were deployed in southern Bhutan alongside the regular armed forces. This was followed on 15 December by the launch of a military offensive to expel the armed separatist groups from the country. Sixty women and children who had been living in the camps were arrested and handed over to the Indian authorities.

A European Parliament mission to Bhutan in November discussed the refugee issue with government officials and expressed their concerns.

Nepali-speaking refugees

At a UNHCR meeting in September, the High Commissioner announced that his office would phase out its direct involvement in the refugee camps, and would promote local integration and resettlement of refugees instead of repatriation.

In February and March the governments of Bhutan and Nepal agreed the categorization by a Joint Verification Team (JVT) of the refugees in Khudunabari camp. Refugees had been categorized as "bona fide Bhutanese who would be eligible for repatriation to Bhutan", Bhutanese who had "voluntarily" emigrated, non-Bhutanese, and refugees who had committed criminal acts.

In May the two governments agreed that some of the refugees would be allowed to return to Bhutan under certain conditions. Those who were deemed to have "voluntarily" emigrated would have to reapply for citizenship. The JVT report, published in June, recognized only 2.4 per cent of refugees as "bona fide Bhutanese", and categorized 70.55 per cent as having emigrated voluntarily.

In October it was announced that refugees from Khudunabari camp who applied to return would be repatriated, except those categorized as non-Bhutanese, whose cases would be reviewed.

Tensions among refugees about their uncertain future increased after members of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) shot dead a police officer in an attack on a police post in September.


The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, in its report published in January, concluded that women in Bhutan enjoyed a high status compared to other developing countries but that sexual harassment of women remained a major concern.


Children in southern Bhutan continued to suffer discrimination because of the requirement to produce a Security Clearance Certificate to be admitted to schools. In the case of southern Bhutanese children, decisions were often arbitrary and protracted.

The World Bank approved a credit of US$31 million to fund an education program. Non-governmental organizations lobbied for a proportion to go to refugee children in the camps in eastern Nepal on the grounds that they constituted a quarter of all Bhutanese children.

Possible prisoners of conscience

Eleven possible prisoners of conscience from eastern Bhutan continued serving long prison sentences. Four of them were not released despite completing their sentences. An estimated 50 political prisoners from southern Bhutan remained in prison.

  • Sangla Dukpa, a member of the Sharchhop ethnic community originally from Mongar district, was arrested in India in January and handed over to the Bhutanese authorities. He was charged with theft and reportedly sentenced to life imprisonment. He was reported to be a political prisoner, victimized because he was formerly a member of the Druk National Congress, a banned political party.

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