Beyond the fake refugee scam: The rot ran deep in refugee camps even during the 90s

A Bhutanese refugee activist exposes how the government officials and police abused their authorities instead of addressing genuine concern of the Bhutanese refugees in the camps.

Ram Karki

  • Read Time 6 min.

The recently exposed Bhutanese refugee scandal in Nepal has not only tarnished the image of Nepal and the Nepali people inside and outside but also raised considerable doubt among the minds of those resettling countries whether, during the resettlement period between 2008-2016, Nepal government and its officials were successful in sending Nepali citizens turning them into Bhutanese refugees for resettlement in their countries. 

To add fuel to such doubts, KP Oli, Former Prime Minister of Nepal, while addressing his party workers during the first week of May, said that around 350-400 Nepali nationals turned fake Bhutanese refugees were already taken for resettlement before the closure of Bhutanese refugees resettlement project in December 2016. Oli’s revelations further raised the doubt that the current scandal was not its first kind but had happened since the start of Bhutanese refugees’ resettlement in 2008.

The unfolding of this notorious Bhutanese refugee scandal reminded me of a government official’s inhuman action in Jhapa a few weeks after the first group of Bhutanese refugees arrived in Nepal in February 1991. 

During the early week of 1991, a group of 91 most vulnerable evicted Nepali-speaking Bhutanese under the leadership of Bhutanese activists Ram Karki, Gauri Shankar Nirola and Bhim Khapangi, despite repeated denial, could successfully enter Nepal via Kakarvitta border after the intervention by the local leaders and people. After staying for more than one week at a local Dharamshala, those 91 people finally settled in a thatch-roofed cowshed at Maidhar, Kotihom, near Surunga in Jhapa, in early 1991.

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As those 91 most vulnerable Bhutanese refugees struggled to survive begging around the nearby villages, the official arrived with many policemen accompanied by the DSP and several police vans and ordered us to return from the same route through which we came to Nepal. When I protested, he ordered the police to arrest me. Thereafter, a huge gathering of local people started shouting slogans against his deportation order, and the Surunga police station where I was imprisoned was surrounded by people.

Corruption relating to Bhutanese refugees is suspected to have started even before UNHCR began its presence in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

As a result, I was set free after more than three hours in police custody, and his plan to deport us failed. Later thousands of evicted Bhutanese poured in, and the location was converted into a full-fledged refugee camp. Had we not been supported by the local people under the leadership of local leader Kamal Mainali and others, Nepal’s refugee camps would have never been established. The official was suspected of being bribed by Bhutan, but as of now, no one has dared to expose his nefarious action. Therefore, corruption relating to Bhutanese refugees is suspected to have started even before UNHCR began its presence in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal.

Thousands of Bhutanese refugees arrived, and UNHCR started aiding and establishing seven refugee camps in the various places of Jhapa and Morang districts. Establishing Nepal Home Ministry’s Refugee Coordinating Unit (RCU) with its officials stationed in each refugee camp in 1993 to look after law and order of the camps was a turning point in introducing a channel of bribery system to provide services to the Bhutanese refugees. Such officials got involved in a series of crimes. RCU used to demand a considerable amount of money as a favor to do their essential duties like birth registration and allocation of ration. They used to suspend ration if they did not find refugees at their huts when they visited and to restore the suspended ration one had to provide thousands of rupees as a bribe.

[Related: US-based Bhutanese Diaspora community writes a collective letter to Nepal’s Home Minister

For Bhutanese refugee activists to travel outside Nepal for their advocacy purpose, there was a provision to provide a refugee travel document by the Nepal government but to apply for that one had to start the process from camp-based RCU, which forwarded the application to the Chandraguri RCU office which in turn forwarded it to RCU headquarters at Singha Durbar and from there finally to Foreign Ministry in Sital Niwas from where a refugee travel document used to be issued. But to reach Sital Niwas, one had to bribe thousands of rupees starting from camp-based RCU.

Even peons, typists, and guards in those offices threatened a Bhutanese refugees that if they did not get a bribe their applications would not be forwarded to senior officials. I still remember one Chandraguri-based RCU section officer asking me 25000 rupees to forward my application to the Home Ministry in Kathmandu. I was humiliated to see him not considering we Bhutanese refugees as human beings.

Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal in 1990’s. Photo: Ram Karki.

The Nepal Police personnel were stationed to provide security to the Bhutanese refugees. These personnel used to be caught red-handed engaging in sexual exploitation of helpless refugee girls. I remember seeing the hut owner catching a police officer red-handed while he was mishandling a minor girl, but he escaped. Unfortunately, his belt was snatched, which we handed over to the CDO of Jhapa at his office, requesting him to take action against the named police. No action was ever taken against him. Instead, he was seen reposted in the same camp. Most policemen stationed in the camps used to take advantage of the vulnerable situations of the refugee women and girls and used to exploit them even during the daylight. Complaints filed at the camp management committee were never listened to. 

At the highest level, the then Nepal Home Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, heartily accepted the notorious proposal from Bhutan to categorize Bhutanese refugees into four categories–those who left the country voluntarily, those who were forcibly evicted, those with criminal records and “non-Bhutanese” instead of just Bhutanese and non-Bhutanese. He agreed to this while he was leading the first Nepal-Bhutan bilateral talks to resolve the Bhutanese refugee crisis in 1993 at Thimpu. There was widespread speculation that the Nepal side was under undue influence by the Bhutanese side to accept the proposal. With categorisation closed permanently, the hope of Bhutanese refugees to return home was dashed.

Speculation of undue influence by Thimpu was also directed toward former Prime Minister late Girija Prasad Koirala.

The current scandal vividly reminds the victimized Bhutanese refugees about the inhuman treatment they had to suffer from the Home Ministry-appointed officials at its Refugees Coordinating Unit (RCU) offices in the refugee camps and its district office in Chandaguri and Singh Durbar. Most of the Bhutanese refugee community leaders now resettled were of the opinion that corruption in the name of Bhutanese refugees was not at all a new phenomena. Bhutanese refugees were considered very low-graded people, and even if any of them wanted to report the crime, they were chased away by law-enforcing officials. 

The situation is different today because Nepali citizens are themselves the victims, and thanks to vibrant Nepali media, the cases have been exposed. They have unearthed the corrupt nexus involving the politicians and  senior officials. 

Having said all that, Bhutanese refugees received good treatment in Nepal by Nepali people at large. Nepali people were open-hearted and helpful, especially those from  near the refugee camps. They deserve much respect from the Bhutanese refugees. Local leaders like Kamal Mainali in Kotihom and others always supported our effort to establish refugee camps there. Media, journalists, civil society organizations and their leaders and political and student leaders across the various political parties still support our movement. 

Like a Kathmandu-based radio journalist, a retired European diplomat asked me the other day whether any Nepali government authorities ever communicated directly or indirectly to the Bhutanese refugees’ representatives and expressed their regret for getting their name connected in the ongoing shameful scandal. As a former Bhutanese refugee still active in reclaiming our rights to return to Bhutan, unaware of any such communication, I immediately contacted a few camp-based Bhutanese refugee leaders and asked if such things ever happened. They said that there was no such communication. In contrast, they expected the Nepal government not to prolong their crisis any more but instead involve UNHCR and other international agencies and find a lasting solution to the refugee crisis. 

The Nepal government should immediately engage UNHCR to provide justice to remaining Bhutanese refugees living in the camps in eastern Nepal by undertaking the following steps. First, they should register all those genuine unregistered Bhutanese refugees. Second, they should issue refugee identity cards to all genuine Bhutanese refugees. And third, they should implement all three options of durable solutions without further delay.

Until permanent solutions are not reached, proper relief assistance, including medical, education and other necessary support, should be resumed for the camps-based Bhutanese refugees. 

Ram Karki is Bhutanese Human Rights Activist based in The Hague, the Netherlands.