Statelessness among resettled Bhutanese refugees in Europe: An unresolved problem

Ram Karki, former President of the Bhutanese Community in the Netherlands, Coordinator of Bhutan Watch and Head of the Global Campaign for the Release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan
/ 5 mins read

As part of one of the largest refugee resettlement programmes of its kind, over 2,000 refugees from Bhutan have been resettled to Europe since 2007. Deprived of their Bhutanese nationality, some refugees in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK are still stateless, as they are unable to meet the requirements for naturalisation in their host countries. Community members are working tirelessly to ensure a solution is found.

First Group of Bhutanese Refugees arriving in The Netherlands on resettlement program
First group of Bhutanese refugees arriving in the Netherlands under the UNHCR resettlement programme

During the early 1990s, Bhutan, a small landlocked South Asian nation evicted around one-sixth of its total population. The reason for this eviction was to crush the popular uprising demanding human rights and justice in the country. Those who joined the peaceful demonstrations that took place during September 1990 were identified and expelled after being labelled as “anti-national terrorists”. Many of them were tortured, arrested, raped, killed, and disappeared. More than 100 political prisoners arrested during and after the peaceful demonstration are still languishing in Bhutanese prisons. The family members of those expelled faced the punishment of citizenship revocation, resulting in 80,000 stateless people living in Bhutan.

Approximately 125,000 evicted Bhutanese refugees were sheltering in the neighbouring West Bengal, Assam, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh States of India, but failed to get protection there and were further expelled to Nepal. In Nepal, a refugee camp was established on the bank of the river Maidhar and eventually managed by UNHCR. Altogether, seven refugee camps in various parts of Nepal’s Jhapa and Morang districts were established. Nepal’s efforts to help the refugees repatriate back to their country failed even after holding 15 rounds of Nepal-Bhutan Bilateral Talks. Various peaceful movements by the refugees themselves to return back to Bhutan with dignity and honour were unsuccessful, and the international community was unable to persuade Bhutan to take back its citizens. Bhutan’s King, with strong support from India, adamantly resisted all outside pressure and did not agree to return of any evicted citizen back to Bhutan.

Given the deteriorating situation in Nepal’s camps and the refugees' unmet hopes of returning to Bhutan, a core group of countries - US, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and the Netherlands - volunteered to accept a share of refugees under UNHCR’s resettlement programme. The resettlement programme officially started in 2007. Since then UNHCR has declared it as one of the largest and most successful programmes of its kind. It was praised by the UNHCR Representative Craig Sanders, calling the resettlement of nearly nine out of 10 Bhutanese refugees "an extraordinary achievement”. As of 2015, UNHCR has resettled more than 100,000 Bhutanese Refugees, out of which Australia resettled 5,554, Canada 6,500, Denmark 874, New Zealand 1,002, the Netherlands 327, Norway 566, the United Kingdom 358 and the US 84,819.

Bhutanese refugees in Europe and the role of community organisations

UNHCR’s resettlement programme enabled just over 2,000 Bhutanese refugees to find homes in various European countries – the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands - with the first groups arriving in each country between 2007 and 2010. In the United Kingdom, resettled Bhutanese refugees are living mostly in Manchester and its neighbouring areas, but in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, refugees were dispersed across the countries, not out of their own choice, but according to the plans of the respective governments.

In order to stay connected and find collective solutions to common problems, the resettled Bhutanese refugees formed community organisations in each countries: the Bhutanese Community in The Netherlands, the Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark (ABCD), the Bhutanese Welfare Association (BWA, UK), and the Association of Bhutanese In Norway (ABN). The common objectives of these community organisations are:

  1. To unite all former Bhutanese citizens who are living in the same country after being evicted from Bhutan.
  2. To assist them with effective integration into local society.
  3. To preserve and promote their mother tongue, as well as positive parts of their culture and traditions.
  4. To show support and solidarity to both their own community members and other communities during times of need and emergencies.
  5. To provide a platform for community members to show their skills and talents by organising periodic cultural programmes, seminars, workshops, leadership trainings and other related gatherings.
  6. To act as a network with Bhutanese communities living in other parts of the world and make efforts to work together towards preserving their common history, documents and other precious articles.
  7. To raise awareness about their existence with their local communities and governments by inviting them to cultural events.
  8. To enable reconnection with families and friends living back in Bhutan.
  9. To network with organisations working on similar issues and find common solutions.

Statelessness among Bhutanese communities in Europe

Most Bhutanese refugees in the Netherlands were successful in naturalizing as citizens, but some community members have been denied their right to citizenship on the grounds that they could not fulfil the criteria required for the language diploma, as they were elderly and had never been to school. The Bhutanese Community in The Netherlands has been doing everything possible, including meeting with Dutch Parliamentarians to help them to get citizenship, but as of now it has been unsuccessful, and these community members remain stateless. Similarly, in the United Kingdom a few elderly Bhutanese Community members remain statelessness due to their inability to fulfil the language requirements to acquire citizenship, and BWA representatives there are working to try and resolve the issue.

In Denmark, the majority of Bhutanese community members have been left without citizenship even after living legally for 10 years in the country and fulfilling several other criteria. Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark representatives have been actively campaigning to garner support in finding a just solution to this human rights violation.

Working together with ENS

Recently, Bhutanese community organisations in Europe have connected with the European Network on Statelessness (ENS).  Partnering with ENS is helping to raise awareness about the lesser-known Bhutanese refugee community in Europe, and the statelessness faced by some community members. In the last few months, community representatives have been actively taking parts in several initiatives organised by ENS, including monthly online meetings with other stateless community representatives and individuals from across Europe, resulting in increased attention to our issue from broader international networks. The Bhutanese Community in the Netherlands and the Bhutanese Welfare Association (UK) have both now joined ENS as member organisations.

Statelessness has become a key problem for the resettled Bhutanese communities in the Netherlands, Denmark and United Kingdom. Having been invited as refugees with the guarantee of all amenities of life by the inviting countries, it is quite strange that such invited guests have been forced to continue living the life of statelessness without any apparent solution. We will continue fighting for their right to nationality to be fulfilled, including through our partnership with ENS.

BCN delegates Meeting Dutch Parliamentarian seeking solution to statelessness in the Community
BCN delegates Meeting Dutch Parliamentarian seeking solution to statelessness in the Community

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