The Bhutanese refugee crisis in Nepal is a major humanitarian and geopolitical issue that has affected thousands of people for decades. This article provides a thorough summary of the history, causes, and present state of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, focusing on the obstacles they confront and the attempts made to resolve their predicament.

History and Causes of the Bhutanese refugee crisis

The Bhutanese refugee problem began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis, known as Lhotshampas, were expelled or fled Bhutan owing to political and ethnic unrest. The Bhutanese government established policies aimed at protecting the Drukpa majority’s cultural identity, including actions believed to be discriminatory towards the Lhotshampa community.

  • Ethnic and Cultural Tensions: As Bhutan’s government pursued policies promoting Drukpa culture and Buddhism, the Lhotshampas, who are largely Hindu and of Nepali descent, encountered increased prejudice. The 1988 census and the accompanying “One Nation, One People” policy resulted in the revocation of citizenship for many Lhotshampas.
  • Forced Expulsion and Flight: Faced with forced labour, property seizures, and other types of persecution, many Lhotshampas were forced to leave Bhutan. They sought asylum in other countries, particularly Nepal and India.

Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Response

When the Bhutanese refugees arrived in Nepal, they were housed in numerous camps in the southeastern districts of Jhapa and Morang. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in collaboration with the Nepalese government and different non-governmental organisations, developed and operated these camps to meet basic requirements and services.

  • Living Conditions: Although refugee camps provided shelter, food, healthcare, and education, living conditions were often difficult. Overcrowding, limited resources, and reliance on handouts made conditions challenging for the refugees.
  • Education and Employment: Educational opportunities were provided in the camps, but employment options were limited, resulting in economic hardship and dependency on outside assistance.

Resettlement and repatriation Efforts

Efforts to address the Bhutanese refugee dilemma have centred on two main solutions: voluntary repatriation to Bhutan and third-country resettlement.

  • Repatriation Efforts: Attempts to negotiate the voluntary return of refugees to Bhutan have been mainly unsuccessful due to the Bhutanese government’s unwillingness and the refugees’ fears of persecution and a lack of guarantees about their safety and rights upon return.
  • Third-Country Resettlement: Beginning in the mid-2000s, the United States, Canada, Australia, and numerous European countries agreed to admit Bhutanese refugees. By 2019, more than 100,000 refugees have been resettled in third countries, dramatically lowering the number of people in camps.

Current Status and Ongoing Challenges

Despite the success of the resettlement programme, Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and in other countries continue to face obstacles.

  • Remaining Refugees: Several thousand Bhutanese refugees remain in camps in Nepal. These people suffer persistent uncertainty about their future, limited chances for local integration, and a continued need on humanitarian assistance.
  • Integration and Adaptation: For people resettled in third countries, adjusting to new societies brings unique obstacles. Adapting to diverse cultural, social, and economic situations necessitates substantial help and modification.
  • Legal and Citizenship Issues: Many resettled refugees encounter legal and citizenship hurdles, such as navigating complex immigration processes and obtaining permanent residency or citizenship in their new home countries.


The Bhutanese refugee crisis in Nepal highlights the region’s complicated ethnic, political, and humanitarian challenges. While the third-country resettlement programme has provided a long-term solution for many, continued efforts are required to assist the remaining refugees in Nepal and ensure the effective integration of relocated individuals into their new communities. Addressing these difficulties would necessitate ongoing international cooperation, commitment to human rights, and sustainable development initiatives to enhance the lives of all those affected by this prolonged crisis.


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