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Lhotshampa Refugee History

Punakha Valley, Bhutan

Nepal and Bhutan are both mountain kingdoms that have preserved their nationhood amidst two Asian giants, India and China. Beginning in the late 19th Century, Bhutan invited Nepali immigration to aid in building infrastructure and agriculture. This group of Nepali Bhutanese are called the Lhotshampa. They settled in the south of Bhutan and developed their own cultures, customs, and language that blended their Nepali ancestry with Bhutanese ways.




Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Bhutan underwent an interesting identity formation in the face of the Chinese invasion and colonization of Tibet in the mid 20th Century. Although Bhutanese religion, culture, and language is close to its Tibetan and Tibetanoid neighbors, it strongly and suddenly embraced and developed its own national identity – probably as a way to avoid a looming and possible Chinese conquest. This is today’s picture of Bhutan, a lasting remnant of the Tibetanoid empire – yet strongly promoting a cohesive national identity, including national dress, language, dance, food, song, royal family, etc.





School in Wangdue-Phodrang, Bhutan

In the 1980’s Bhutan changed its citizenship laws, especially in relation to Lhotshampa citizenship. At the time the Lhotshampa comprised roughly on third of the population, posing a possible threat to political order. By 1990, government policies became more repressive for the Lhotshampa and they fled as refugees from the government’s actions or were expelled as their citizenship was proclaimed illegitimate. The Lhotshampa’s sudden expulsion left Bhutan with abandoned villages, an injured farming base, and international criticism. A few Lhotshampa still remain in Bhutan, yet face discrimination as a marginalized, minority ethnicity.

By 1992, over 80,000 Lhotshampa had moved to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camps in Eastern Nepal. Nepal had already been working with refugee policies through the Tibetan Diaspora beginning decades earlier. Although neither cultural refugee group can gain Nepali citizenship, the Tibetans have slightly greater freedom of settlement (since they fall into the partial jurisdiction of the Tibetan government in exile) whereas the Lhotshampa are mainly limited to the UNHCR administered camps.

Traditional Festival or Tshchu

In recent years, a contingent of nations is working with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Lhotshampa community on resettlement programs to other nations. The majority of resettlement is to the United States totaling 60,000 in 2012, however Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, and the Netherlands have also settled around 11,000. Many refugees are interested in resettlement due to Bhutan’s continual denial of responsibility and aversion to future repatriation or justice.