Interview with Thugten Drukpa, President of The Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark


After a decade of living without a nationality in Denmark, the Bhutanese community continues their fight for citizenship rights. The Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark (ABCD) represents over 800 stateless people who remain stuck in limbo. ENS spoke to Thugten Drukpa, President of ABCD about their advocacy work, as well as why it is crucial that communities lead the calls for change in Denmark.

Photo of Thugten Drukpa, President of The Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark

Your research published in 2023 revealed that 98% of permanently resettled Bhutanese refugees remain without a nationality, still over a decade after they first arrived in Denmark. What are the main challenges they face?

The challenges faced by resettled stateless Bhutanese refugees are multifaceted. They live in a constant state of insecurity, are burdened with the threat of deportation, face harsh inequalities, and struggle with a pervasive lack of belonging. The authorities routinely send out letters pushing for voluntary repatriation, but returning to Bhutan is not an option: the country has stripped them of their citizenship, evicted them and rendered them stateless for over three decades.

Practical implications of their statelessness include obstacles to international travel, where immigration services subject them to prolonged inquiries about their travel documents. Stateless individuals are deprived of voting rights, stifling their say in the democratic process. They also encounter barriers in language learning, hindering their access to the job market. Barred from purchasing property, they rely on limited social benefits from the Danish government. Their lack of documentation prevents them from accessing essential online resources, such as Denmark’s national digital ID. And the list goes on...

For the younger generation which arrived in Denmark at an early age, an important decision looms between pursuing higher education or entering the workforce. Those who choose higher education significantly delay their eligibility to obtain citizenship, as they are only eligible once they have been employed for a set amount of time after their studies. Consequently, many choose to forgo higher education and start working as early as possible to speed up their eligibility. This can negatively impact the opportunities available to younger generations and have a knock-on effect on their lives and wider  society. These challenges underscore the urgent need to address the plight of stateless Bhutanese refugees in Denmark.

Last year ABCD and ENS collaborated on a poignant video which offers an intimate look at the daily challenges faced by the resettled Bhutanese community. What are the main obstacles faced by your community members trying to obtain Danish nationality?

A significant portion of the adult resettled Bhutanese community is illiterate, a factor that not only limits their ability to learn the Danish language but also impedes their access to the job market. Compounding the issue are the stringent immigration and naturalisation laws in place. The combination of illiteracy and the strict regulatory framework makes it challenging for these individuals to meet the linguistic, employment, and ‘active citizenship’ requirements necessary for naturalisation. The existing naturalisation process seems insurmountable for illiterate individuals unless the government facilitates direct or streamlined access to citizenship through dispensation.

Lok Maya, featured in the video, serves as a moving example of the challenges faced by Bhutanese refugees in Denmark. Resettled in 2011 as a UN quota refugee through the UNHCR third country resettlement program, Lok Maya has called Denmark ‘home’ ever since. However, she still faces numerous difficulties relating to her integration. For the past four years, she has been working two different cleaning jobs despite grappling with taxing health conditions. Lok Maya is illiterate, so she had to go through more than four years of training before securing her current job. With dedication and hard work, she was able to complete the Dansk prøver 1 (PD1) language course, which is a prerequisite for illiterate individuals. But her poor command of the Danish language has negatively impacted her communication at work and prevents her from passing the citizenship test.

Lok Maya has one wish – to obtain Danish citizenship. But for individuals like Lok Maya, citizenship remains a distant dream due to the constraints of the existing regulations. Even attaining permanent residency appears beyond reach.

For the younger generation, as I mentioned before, the path to citizenship is lengthy and uncertain, making it hard to fulfil their aspirations. Addressing these challenges calls for a nuanced understanding of the barriers faced by the Bhutanese community members seeking integration in Denmark and Danish citizenship.

Your organisation, ABCD wrote an open letter to the Danish government, and you gave evidence to the Parliamentary Naturalisation Committee in December to appeal to relevant decision makers to find a permanent solution. What are the main demands made to the government and Parliament?

ABCD has taken proactive steps to draw the attention of decision makers to the plight of permanently resettled Bhutanese refugees in Denmark. The focus of these efforts is to advocate for a permanent solution to the challenges faced by this stateless community. The key demands presented to the government and Parliament are:

Acknowledgment of the Stateless Situation: ABCD has highlighted the prolonged statelessness endured by Bhutanese refugees for over three decades, emphasising their displacement from Bhutan in the early 1990s and subsequent stateless status, despite over a decade of residence in Denmark as resettled refugees under the UN quota framework.

Low Citizenship Rates: We want to stress that only 2% of initially resettled individuals have successfully obtained Danish citizenship. We know from our research that this can be directly attributed to the combination of stringent immigration and naturalisation laws, high illiteracy rates among the population, and the lengthy waiting period for younger individuals to secure citizenship.

Urgent Need for Action: We are urging the government and the Naturalisation Committee to address statelessness by proposing tangible solutions as soon as possible. The appeal includes a plea for easy or direct access to citizenship, particularly for illiterate individuals and the youth.

By presenting these demands, we seek to catalyse meaningful action and policy change that can alleviate the stateless condition of Bhutanese refugees in Denmark. The demands emphasise the importance of inclusivity and accessibility in the naturalisation process.

ABCD joined ENS as a member last March and have been involved in multiple initiatives since. How has being a part of ENS impacted your activism?

Joining the ENS network has significantly bolstered our activism efforts. Before becoming a part of this network, our outreach capacities and understanding of stateless activism were limited. ENS has played a pivotal role as a consultant, providing a platform for discussing and comprehending issues related to statelessness not only in Denmark but also across Europe.

The support and expertise provided by ENS has been comprehensive, covering moral, emotional, and financial aspects. Through effective coordination, ENS facilitated connections with other prominent organisations, such as The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR). This collaborative approach has been instrumental in executing our projects, leading to the expansion of our network and heightened awareness of statelessness in Denmark.

In essence, being part of the ENS network has not only enhanced our activism but has also provided a valuable avenue for learning, collaboration, and amplification of our impact.

What are future priorities for your work and what keeps you positive in your fight to end statelessness?

Our future priorities in the ongoing fight to end statelessness involve the launch of a significant initiative, the 'Pathway to Permanent Residency and Citizenship' project, spanning from 2024 to 2026. This project is designed to assist illiterate individuals who have met most requirements (including employment criteria), in applying for permanent residency, and ultimately attaining citizenship. For those who may not fulfil all requirements, our approach will involve continued engagement with the Danish Government, advocacy with political parties, partnership with other organisations for collective efforts, and outreach to journalists to feature our stories and amplify our message.

Recent developments have been promising, with increased backing for what we are trying to accomplish and strengthened awareness raising about the issue by individuals, organisations, and media outlets. Engaging with the Danish Government and receiving optimistic responses indicate a positive shift in our advocacy efforts. Additionally, our community members actively support us by sharing their experiences, ideas, and expectations, providing crucial insights into their situations.

Despite the acknowledgment that illiterate individuals face significant barriers to citizenship, our collective determination remains unwavering. The combination of tangible project initiatives, growing external support, and the active involvement of our community members keeps us optimistic in our relentless pursuit to bring an end to statelessness.

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