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Stories of Hope from Bhutanese Refugees: Moving from Distress to Wellness


DISCLAIMER: We have borrowed this extensive breakdown of Bhutan from International Institute St. Louis. This is not a reflection of our own work; rather, it is offered to you as a resource we found incredibly useful from an organization we highly respect. Because these are not our own words, we ask that you only use this information as a means to getting a broadly-painted picture of the worlds from which our clients come. Please do not use this information as anything other than the first steps in a long process of understanding.

We suggest that you not assume everything written here pertains to the family or individual with whom you work. Broad generalities help us understand backgrounds, but they should not dictate how we see our clients.


WHO THEY ARE: The majority of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal are descendants of people who in the late 1800’s began immigrating to southern Bhutan. Upon the move, they became known as Lhotsampas, or “People of the South.” Ethnically, they are overwhelmingly Nepali-descended, with non-Nepali ethnic groups including the Sharchop, Drupka, Urow, and Khengpa. Most report living in Bhutan as farmers or students. They resided in southern Bhutan until 1990 when concerns over a shifting demographic and political tensions led the government to announce that all Lhotsampas who could not prove they had been residents of Bhutan in 1958 had to leave. This led to tens of thousands of southern Bhutanese fleeing to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal.

GEOGRAPHY: Southern Bhutan is made up of the Shiwalik Hills which are covered in dense, deciduous forests and alluvial lowland river valleys and mountains that can peak at 4,900 feet above sea level.

HISTORY: After the migration, contact between the Druk majority in the north and the Lhotsampas in the South was very limited, leading the Lhotsampas to retain their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. For the most part, relations between the two groups remained mostly conflict free, with the Lhotsampas coming to enjoy Bhutanese citizenship under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958.

In the 1980’s Bhutan’s king and his government became concerned with the growing number of peripheral ethnic and cultural groups living outside of the Druk tradition. Under policies known as Bhutanization (or, the “one nation, one people” policy), Druk culture, religion, and language was imposed upon Bhutan’s residents, regardless of ethnic group. The Nepali language was banned from schools, and Nepali teachers were thus fired in addition to reports of Nepali books being burned. Furthermore, the government established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many Lhotsampas, denying them their rights as citizens. Many Lhotsampas as well as other non-Druk Bhutanese were now considered “illegal immigrants” and government programs were put in action to identify and deport them. The Nepali and other non-Druk groups responded by organizing politically and protesting the authorities, leading to violent clashes with the police and army and to mass arrests. A volunteer militia force consisting of private citizens was formed to help quell the protests and many of these militias now stand accused of arresting and torturing the activists. Individuals were then forced to sign alleged “voluntary migration certificates” before being deported from the country. The Lhotsampa migration to Nepal and Indian West Bengal followed this and a December 1990 decree calling for the deportation of all Lhotsampas unable to prove their residency in Bhutan in 1958.

PEOPLE: Like the Nepalis residing in Nepal, the Bhutanese refugees divide themselves into castes. Their caste system principally separates people into castes for the purposes of marriage selection and other social

relationships. Because there is equal access to education in the refugee camps, the percentage of refugees with no education does not vary greatly between castes. However, members of the upper castes are more likely to receive postsecondary education.

Most refugees identify themselves as farmers or students for occupational background. Other occupations include teachers, social workers, tailors, weavers, and housekeepers.

Traditional gender roles are practiced and strictly adhered to. Girls are expected to carry a heavier household workload than boys and will face this distinction into adulthood and marriage. Women do not have equal access to information and resources and are not given an equal position when it comes to decision-making in the family and community. For certain social groups, divorced or widowed women are viewed as inferior within their extended family and are often forced to raise their children without the support of their family members. Female victims of sexual abuse and their families are typically ostracized and harassed by the community.

RELIGION: The Bhutanese refugees are predominantly Hindu.

FAMILY: Families typically average around 8 members and consists of elderly parents, married sons and their wives and children, and unmarried children. Extended family members, like aunts, uncles, and cousins, are considered part of the immediate family. Women traditionally move into their husband’s household after marriage.

Although it is not a common practice, polygamy is present. Most often, the two women are sisters or other blood relatives and one of them is disabled or otherwise in need of special care.

DRESS: Many of the refugees can still be found wearing traditional Nepali clothes, which vary depending on which region the family can be traced to.

LANGUAGE: Nearly all the Bhutanese refugees speak Nepali as a first or second language.

NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION: Traditional Nepali culture still heavily influences the refugees. Dance and music are used to depict themes and stories from everyday life, such as marriage rites, crop harvestings, and war stories.

OTHER FACTS: Although the majority of refugees welcome the idea of resettlement, a group of politically active refugees actively opposes it, stating that repatriation to Bhutan is the only viable solution.