Lessons to learn from fake Bhutanese refugee scam

Current discourse on the fake Bhutanese refugee scam misses two important points: We need limited government, and Nepali people want to leave the country.

Prakash Maharjan

  • Read Time 4 min.

The involvement of top political leaders in a fraudulent scheme, which involves falsely presenting Nepali citizens as Bhutanese refugees and arranging for their resettlement in the United States, has been a matter of significant interest for the past few weeks. At present, an investigation is being carried out to scrutinize all individuals implicated in the fraudulent scheme, and new revelations are emerging as part of this process. After following all the revelations presented by the media, the protests, and the opinions of people, it has become apparent that  the general public is overlooking two important conclusions that can be drawn from this scam: (i) the need for limited government, and (ii) the fact that Nepali people want to leave the country.

Need for limited government

This case serves as a reminder that the more power political leaders have, the more they can hold public interests hostage to their own agendas. It reinforces the importance of limited government and the need for citizens to be wary of those in power.

Political leaders in Nepal are notoriously popular for abusing their power for personal gains. This was further established by the Bhutanese refugee scam, where the leaders not only stepped over the boundaries, exceeding the authority provided to them, but also collaborated with rival political factions to further their own self interest. The home minister, entrusted with the duty of ensuring the peace and security of the nation, was the very person obstructing it. Despite the public outcry, political parties have not taken action against the implicated politicians.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” says Lord Acton.

The issue of illegal migration cannot be solely attributed to government corruption, as people who desire to leave the country illegally are also involved in corruption. 

We, as voters, legitimize the absolute power of the government through an election with the hopes of ensuring the common good in the country. While we elect governments to promote the common good, we tend to forget that they are still individuals seeking to maximize their self-interest which can lead to abuse of power even when there are checks and balances in place. It is clear that the leaders of the three political parties colluded in the Bhutanese refugee case, and a meeting was held right after the list of names involved in the scam was released. This indicates that the people who were supposed to hold each other accountable were actually complicit in the wrongdoing.

Says David Boaz, “power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, and restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order.”

The government or the people in the government will not use power responsibly, even though it is legitimate. People need to be aware that power tends to corrupt and should always be skeptical of it. However, there is a widespread belief among Nepali citizens that those in high-ranking positions can get away with abusing their power without facing consequences. Such a mindset reinforces the leaders’ confidence in exploiting their authority.

To prevent abuse of power, it is essential to limit the government’s authority to only essential functions like security. Nepali citizens can use various means to express their opinions and limit the government’s power, such as organizing protests and leveraging traditional and social media to communicate their stance. By actively engaging in the political process, we can create pressure on the government to consider our demands and promote a more accountable and responsible governance system. We must remain vigilant and use our voices to ensure that those in power do not abuse it for personal gains.

The new members in parliament, the Nepal Police’s investigation, and the pressure from civil society have all played a commendable role in addressing this issue and they deserve credit. It is an absolute necessity that the investigation be free of political pressure and be continued no matter what, with those convicted being penalized. Doing so will not only boost the confidence of the people in our democracy but will also pave the way for further investigation of other high-level issues.

People want to leave

The issue of illegal migration cannot be solely attributed to government corruption, as people who desire to leave the country illegally are also involved in corruption. The question that arises is why people would pay such exorbitant amounts–up to NPR 5,000,000–to leave the country illegally. The answer to this question is relatively straightforward: They are seeking better opportunities.

Nepal lacks economic and educational opportunities within the country. Despite assertions from political leaders about ample opportunities, the desperation among most citizens to leave the country is apparent. Students opt for higher education abroad due to the inefficiencies, politicization, and outdated curricula of universities. The young workforce seeks foreign employment owing to the difficulty of finding jobs that pay well enough to support a decent livelihood. The business environment in Nepal is also challenging, making it harder for entrepreneurs and investors to start and scale up their businesses.

The policy landscape in Nepal has further complicated the situation. For instance, recent amendments to the Education Act of 2016 eliminated diplomas and language-based courses as higher education, citing the rise in education migration, while the government should have focused on improving the educational system and the inefficiencies of incumbent universities. Similarly, import restrictions were imposed last year, citing declining foreign currency reserves. Both instances stripped citizens of their rights to education and the freedom to choose a profession, with the latter causing more severe economic consequences and encouraging more youths to migrate.

Therefore, it is equally crucial to tackle the root causes that compel individuals to opt for illegal migration. The government must adopt a bottom-up approach to policy making instead of a top-down approach. This approach involves investing time in conducting studies to identify the underlying issues and implementing the best alternative that promotes economic opportunities rather than curtailing them.

Prakash Maharjan ​​is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. 

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