Bhutanese Refugees in India

Country of origin background

Bhutanese Refugees in India

Ethnic Nepalese people started arriving in Bhutan in significant numbers in the early 20th century. By the 1980s they accounted for a quarter of the Bhutanese population. In the mid to late 1980s, the authorities began to view the growing numbers of Hindu Nepalese in Bhutan as a direct threat to Bhutanese ethnic identity. After this time, discriminatory measures were employed to restrict the Nepalese from government service jobs, from obtaining promotions and receiving passports.


Alongside these measures, the government introduced a national campaign to revive traditional culture. Teaching Nepali as a second language in schools was banned and Bhutanese national dress was to be worn at school as well as on official occasions. A census was carried out in the early 1980s which determined the number of Nepalese living in Bhutan. As a result of the census, the Citizenship Act of 1985 was enacted which set out new conditions for citizenship of Bhutan. A great number of Hindu Nepalese became illegal residents overnight. The only way to regain it was to prove their residence in Bhutan for the previous 15 years. As a result, many naturalized citizens lost their status. The Act also allowed for any naturalized citizen to be stripped of his or her status if they had shown, by act or speech, to be ‘disloyal’ to the King, country, or people of Bhutan. This provision has been used frequently to revoke citizenship from Hindu Nepalese under the pretext of ‘disloyalty’. Expulsions of Hindu Nepalese who fell foul of the Citizenship Act began in 1988. Street protests and hunger strikes took place in the south to demonstrate against the measures taken against the Hindu Nepalese population.

Reason for flight

In response to the protests by the ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan in the south against their deportation and discrimination, the government’s military presence increased. After several raids and bombings, the Bhutanese authority ordered the closure of local Nepalese schools, clinics, and development programs. Many ethnic Nepalese were forcibly evicted and forced to cross the Indian borders into Assam and West Bengal. The Indian states would not accept the expelled Bhutanese and they were forced to move on. Most went through Nepal to go back into India at different entry points, while approximately 100,000 stayed in UNHCR refugee camps in Nepal. There are between 15,000 and 30,000 ethnic Nepalis living in India. For them, obtaining recognition as refugees remains an impossible task.


Legal status

Since 1949, Bhutanese citizens have been permitted to move freely across the Indian border. An open border between India and Nepal and India and Bhutan is provided for by a treaty between the respective states, last updated in February 2007. A reciprocal arrangement between Indian and Bhutan grants its citizens equal treatment and privileges. The right to residence, study, and work are guaranteed without the need for identity papers. For this reason, the Indian government has not acknowledged the ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese who were forced to flee to be refugees, and nor has it provided any sort of assistance. The UNHCR does not carry out status determination for the Bhutanese. This is most likely due to the friendship treaty between the two countries.


Socio-economic conditions

Under its reciprocal arrangement with Bhutan, the Indian government affords the Bhutanese more freedom of movement and residence than to recognized refugee groups. Nonetheless, because the Bhutanese are not recognized as refugees, they are not eligible to receive the amenities and assistance afforded to refugees. They too fled their country with little or no possessions and are in dire need of assistance. Despite being officially treated as equals to Indian citizens the refugees still experience difficulties in securing driving and business licenses, travel documents, cooking gas and school and university admission.