An estimated 126,000 persons from Bhutan were living as refugees in neighboring countries at the end of 2001, including nearly 111,000 in Nepal and more than 15,000 in India.

All but a few hundred of the refugees were Lhotsampa – Bhutanese Hindus of Nepalese origin – who lived in the southern plains of Bhutan. Most fled to Nepal and India between late 1990 and 1992 to escape what refugee leaders termed "ethnic cleansing" by the Bhutanese authorities. Bhutan, an isolated Himalayan kingdom, is ruled by Buddhist Drupkas who have historically excluded the Lhotsampas from the country's political and economic mainstream.

The Citizenship Act of 1985 deprived the Lhotsampas of citizenship, prompting protests from them in the early 1990s. Claiming that the Lhotsampas were illegal immigrants, the Bhutanese authorities inflicted abuses against many Lhotsampas – including detention, torture, murder, and confiscation of property and citizenship documents – and forced many into exile.

In 1997, the Bhutanese national assembly decreed that "Nepalese nationals" could no longer be employed in southern Bhutan, and permitted Buddhists to resettle on lands that the refugees left behind.

Since 1993, Bhutan and Nepal have been at an impasse over the repatriation of the refugees. In December 2000, the two countries established a Joint Verification Team to identify potential candidates for repatriation. As of the end of 2001, however, the slowness of the joint verification process had prevented any repatriation.


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