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From forcible exile to forced migration

This article was published in the ExPonto Magazine, Amsterdam

From forcible exile to forced migration

 The situation of Bhutanese ethnic minorities

Bhutanese refugees arriving in The Netherlands
Over the last few years, the Dutch government has been trying to reduce the rate of asylum requests to the Netherlands and has been sending asylum seekers back to their home countries against their will. But exiled Bhutanese nationals are being welcomed to the Netherlands, although what they want is help to go back home. Those who are currently living in the Netherlands are asking themselves whether it's an extended exile or a new home. Nanda Gautam gives an insight into a forcibly exiled minority from a country we in the West are told is the happiest nation in the world. 

By: Nanda Gautam, Journalist

A stranger from an unfamiliar country is coming to live near you. Neither you nor he can deny this destiny.

.....Shattered all at once is my precious dream
Nurtured in exile to go back home,
The sadness bore not in that shattered dream
But for fleeing to the enforced home!

....An excerpt of Gopal's poem written while flying to The Netherlands.
"When I had to give up my struggle to go back to my country, Bhutan, only then I felt the reality of being a refugee," says Gopal Gurung, the former mayor of Emiray village in the Dagana district of Bhutan. "Until then, I was a fighter for democracy, a politician. I realized that somebody else decides the fate of a refugee," he continues with a sad sigh at his new home in Harderwijk.
Gopal Gurung

Bhutan's least known citizens

Very few people in the Netherlands know about the kingdom of Bhutan and how the Buddhist regime has forcibly exiled more than a hundred thousand ethnic Lotshampas in order to reduce the strength of ethnic minorities in the country. Bhutan's regime --though these days considered democratic – has not allowed them to repatriate. They have been stranded in the UNHCR camps in Nepal since 1990. Owing to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, only pro-government information comes out of Bhutan and the world is uninformed about what's really happening there. Because of this, many people don't understand the real reason these exiled Bhutanese are forced to resettle in the West. Gopal understood this while flying to The Netherlands and wondered whether the third country resettlement program of the UNHCR provides a lasting solution to the Bhutanese refugee crisis.
Twice exiled BB Gurung

"I looked out of the airplane and then at the faces my wife and children. I felt so sad for not knowing where am I taking them along. I wrote my feelings in a paper, which now sounds like a poem," Gopal says, taking out that page from his diary. Knowing only the name of the country, 'The Netherlands,' was not enough. "But," he recalls, "more terrible was to abandon my mission to go back home, back to Bhutan." He has two daughters and a son. A terminal disease, thought to be cancer, afflicted his son Shyam Sundar and the necessary treatment was too expensive in Nepal. This prompted the UNHCR to fast track his family for resettlement in The Netherlands, turning Gopal's life upside-down.

He regretted the need to settle in the developed world, explaining that no one can replace one's mother, or one's motherland. Gopal's father, BB Gurung, was also mayor of the same village for several years. He is one of the survivors of the extra-judicial killings that completely eliminated the Bhutan State Congress, the country's first political movement of the late 1950s. He fled the country and later returned to Bhutan through a clemency offered by the late king. But he was again exiled by the fourth king, the father of the present monarch, as soon as the movement for democracy begun in 1990. He lives now in the Timai refugee camp in Nepal. Like others, he can't go back to Bhutan. "My father often told me that the triumph of life is to be able to go home and preserve the legacy of the existence of the ethnic Nepalis there. I failed in this venture," says Gopal. Just as no one can replace your mother, he adds, no country can replace your motherland.

State identity lost for ever

These refugees carry nostalgia for the tranquil Bhutanese rural life with them. Every one of them owned, according to Bhutanese law, a piece of land of at least five hectares, where they grow food, build houses, raise cattle, eat food cooked by their mother and live a happy and self-sustained life. That tranquillity continued for about a century until the present king and his father created political turmoil from 1990 onwards.

The ethnic Lhotshampa minorities were gradually made alien in their own country and forced out. Amnesty International described these human rights violations as a case of forcible exile (i). Eventually the Lhotshampas lost their country and state identity forever. This is the source of their greatest sorrow that the apparently luxurious life in the developed world won't assuage. Land is a measurement of power, an irreplaceable place where the history of the family continues unbroken, with its identity intact. One can't dream of having Bhutan's agricultural community life in the industrialized capitalist states. This is one of the reasons that 20% of the refugee population in the camps in Nepal hasn't yet shown interest in resettling in the developed world. Others who do resettle feel the loss of that earlier tranquillity.

By the turn of this century there were 98,886 Bhutanese refugees (ii) worldwide. They are forced to survive in the seven UNHCR administered refugee camps in Nepal (see exhibit 1). About 20,000 live unregistered outside the camps in India and Nepal. Jesuit Refugee Services, which is helping these refugees, predicts that by the end of 2011, half of this refugee population will be resettled abroad. One third of them have already left their camps. There is no any indication of pressure from the powerful nations or the international community on the Bhutanese government to take back at least some of them.


Exhibit 1 showing the percentage population of Bhutanese refugees per districts of Bhutan living as refugees in Nepal

Why aren't these great nations helping these refugees go back to their homes in Bhutan instead? Confronting with this question, spokespersons of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment. The international community is instead helping these refugees survive and settle in distant countries. "We are thankful for their help, but the best help could have been the help that enable us to go back to our own country, not to another country," says Gopal. Being forced to emigrate to The Netherlands, he hoped this would be a land of action for his fellow countrymen from where they could continue to struggle for their rights to their ancestral land in Bhutan and one day go back home.

The third country resettlement provision for the refugees, however, provided a good opportunity to live in the developed world; it also changed their aspirations and undermined the movement against the forces that made them refugees. Families are separated by the urgent need of the survival. Their relatives living inside Bhutan are subject to discrimination. Those in power are deciding their fate and they had to simply surrender to them. Gopal had to leave behind his old parents at their last stage of life. Their tranquillity earned by living for over two decades in the refugee camps in Nepal suddenly collapsed. They felt injured once again in the same way they suffered when they were previously forced to leave their ancestral land, Bhutan.
Forced migration
The Bhutanese government used to denounce the ethic Nepalis' existence in the North Eastern states of India, by accusing them of creating 'Greater Nepal'. But this same government forcibly exiled its own Lhotshampa citizens out of Bhutan and compelled them to accept forced migration to almost all the continents. Since 2007, the United States is taking the greatest number of these Lotshampas refugees, followed by Canada, the UK, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.

South Asia scholar Michael Hutt claims that migration is a cultural trait of the multiple ethnic cultures of Nepal (iii), including the Bhutanese ethnic Nepalis or Lhotshampa minorities. But this is patently untrue. The Bhutanese refugees residing in Nepal respected the international boundary and did not dare to cross it in pursuit of greener pastures until the international community took them across the globe under the UNHCR’s third-country resettlement program. These refugees could not return to Bhutan along the same route by which they arrived in Nepal – a route that runs about a hundred kilometres across the Darjeeling district of India that lies between Bhutan and Nepal. When they were forced out of Bhutan in the early 1990s, they were dropped inhumanly at the border of Nepal by the Indian military forces. Now these refugees have the opportunity to become citizens of the developed world, but still thousands of them are demanding to be repatriated to Bhutan instead.
Exhibit 2
In the beginning of this year 2011 there will be 71,000 Bhutanese refugees living in the UNHCR camps in Nepal and that population shall drop to 55,000 by the end of the year.
Source: Jesuit Refugee Service

Dutch compassion
A mission comprising representatives of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration & Naturalisation Services visited Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal (iv). Based on what they saw, the Dutch government has shown enormous compassion for the exiled Bhutanese and invited the sick and tortured victims to The Netherlands and provided them with all necessary medical care as well as many other needed provisions.

By the year 2010, the Dutch government allowed about 229 Bhutanese refugees to resettle permanently in The Netherlands. In October 2011, another 90 refugees were joined their compatriots in The Netherlands. A further 15 Bhutanese came to the country through training scholarships and then sought asylum. Later, their spouse and children also joined them. Under the resettlement provisions of the UNHCR many more Bhutanese refugees will be invited to The Netherlands in the years to come until the camps in Nepal are emptied; a trend of forced migration indeed. They may end up living next to your home, perhaps permanently, whether you like them or not.

Struggle to struggle
According to sociologist Peter Worsley, in rich countries, the working class is the class which produces, but whose share in the distribution of opportunities are minimal: there follows a struggle between this class and the exploiting class. Workers cannot develop towards progress and social justice except after having fought and overcome the forces that exploit it (v).

Looking at their situation from this perspective, Bhutanese refugees only have an agricultural background and can neither fight against any exploiting forces nor preserve their identity. Moreover, the intercultural encounters that forcibly expose these refugees to an alien cultural environment became a source of enormous stress. Some of them could not make a living in their new country and committed suicide. A refugee media website reported that four Bhutanese refugees in the United States took their own lives within the first year of their arrival (vi).
PS Gurung and mother

This is somewhat surprising given that, in many ways, the US is less than ethnocentric that other countries: refugees who live there for few years are soon called 'American-Bhutanese,' giving importance first, to their new identity, followed by their country of origin.

Dutch Bhutanese
In Europe, the general experience is that, even if one is born and brought up there, an alien offspring remains alien. Thus, a Bhutanese resettled here will never be called 'Dutch-Bhutanese' by the host. Although The Netherlands has a long history of multicultural diversity, ethnocentrism still exists, evaluating the foreigners by the standards of the home culture and finding them lacking. One Dutch writer, Geert Hofstede, says that the immigrants are generally looked upon with curiosity and are found to have bad manners, appear to them to be too rude or too polite, naive, dirty, and/or stupid (vii). Ethnocentrism is to a population what egocentrism is to an individual. Gopal appreciates the way Dutch people treat refugees to their country, but feels that it’s too early to know if he’ll ever feel at home in the Netherlands. In the hope of easing the process of integration, many refugees convert to Christianity. And in many ways, the life here is much better than in Nepal.

However, some Bhutanese refugees still feel isolated and excluded from Dutch society. In Limburg, BN Timsina is surprised that none of his neighbours speak to one another or try to get to know each other. His Dutch colleague who worked in Bhutan advises him to move to another place, preferably into a city so that he could have a network of people with whom he would have something in common. Timsina's compatriot, PS Gurung, lived with his terminally sick mother when they first moved to the Netherlands. When other Bhutanese visited his home, however, Gurung worried that his next-door neighbour will complain. Complaints about the excessive noise continued even on the day his mother died and when her funeral was being held.

Although Bhutanese refugees can resettle permanently in the Netherlands, they can't immediately make an independent living like they had in Bhutan. They lost their agrarian livelihood and so needed a lot of time to adjust to the capitalist industrial society. Perhaps because of this change, they have to depend on others for their survival, to get and keep a job, or to run a business.

Many Bhutanese refugees eventually ask themselves whether the Netherlands is an extended exile or a new home. But due to the increasing ethnocentrism in the country, many feel that it can never become a motherland.

Gopal's wife thinking Bhutan

Gopal's wife remembers the attitude of the local Nepalese towards the Bhutanese refugees as very disheartening, although the culture, language and religion are the same. "On the grounds that we are Bhutanese, we were often taunted by the local Nepalese," she says. That fear creeps in here too, being alien in all respects. Here, owing to the unfamiliar culture and language, they find themselves excluded and functionally illiterate. Everything has to be learnt, even the simplest things like table manners, over and over again. However efficient one can be in mastering the Dutch language, experience shows that it is often used as a tool to devalue the expatriate and leave him as a relative outsider.

In view of this, Gopal's melancholia, as expressed in his poem, is understandable. So if the hard-line politicians like Geert Wilders achieve their goal that "the people in distress must be helped to retain themselves in their own vicinity," I can predict that many Bhutanese refugees would support him. Gopal agrees, saying "the mother and the motherland is equal to paradise."

Watch a video report about the Bhutanese refugees in The Netherlands here

(i) Amnesty International Report, BHUTAN Forcible Exile, AI Index: ASA 14/04/1994, also see at
(ii) Kathmandu Post, 22 March 2001, the statistic of November 2000, available in
(iii) Bhutan, Kingdom Besieged, a publication of the Ministry of Home Affairs, 1991.
(iv) INDcontext, a magazine for the IND relations, nr1. April 2010.(v) Peter Worsley. The Third World. Eidenfield and Nicolson, 0297762478, page:194-7.
(vi) a portal run by the refugees in exile.
(vii) Hofstede, G. Cultural Consequences. Sage publication, London 2001, page: 423-460

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