Every visitor to Nepal knows about Tibet. But few have heard of its Bhutanese refugees, who far outnumber Tibetans in Nepal. Some 107,000 ethnic Nepalis were forcibly expelled from Bhutan in 1991–92, and around 85,000 remain effectively interned in eastern Nepal, pawns in an obscure political stalemate.

Members of Nepali hill groups, notably Rais and Limbus, began migrating into Bhutan in significant numbers in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually accounting for at least a third of Bhutan’s population and earning the designation Lhotshampas (southerners). However, during the mid-1980s, the continued influx of ethnic Nepalis and a rise in Nepali militancy in neighbouring Darjeeling and Sikkim gave rise to a wave of Drukpa nationalism. The Drukpas were quick to make scapegoats of the Lhotshampas who, not coincidentally, controlled lands that were emerging as the economic powerhouse of Bhutan.

In 1988, after a national census, the government began a process of systematic discrimination against anyone who couldn’t provide written proof of residency in Bhutan in 1958. A campaign of ethnic cleansing gathered momentum, culminating in 1991 when “illegal” families were evicted from their lands. Opponents of the regime had their citizenship revoked, and they and their families were harassed, imprisoned, tortured and raped.

The refugees fled initially to India, but receiving little encouragement there, most continued on to Nepal. As their numbers swelled, the Nepalese government, wanting to keep the problem out of sight, established refugee camps at seven locations in the eastern lowlands. Since then, international and Nepali NGOs have built housing, schools, health posts and other essential facilities in the camps under the direction of the UN. Conditions are fairly liveable, but residents are desperately poor, dependent on aid or scarce labouring work.

The crisis shows little sign of being resolved. Since 2008 almost 50,000 refugees have left Nepal for Western countries, but the rest are still desperate to return to their homes in Bhutan. Preparing for a long haul, aid agencies have shifted their focus from relief work to income-generation projects to attempt to give the refugees some independence.

For more on the situation, visit w bhutaneserefugees.com.

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