Between 1990 and 1993, more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese wound up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Many languished in those camps for two decades or more, before being resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In the early 1990s, about 100,000 ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan were expelled or fled from the small Himalayan kingdom, leading to what Amnesty International has called “one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world.”
Worried that the growing ethnic Nepali minority threatened the culture and political dominance of the majority Drukpa people, the government adopted a “One Nation, One People” policy in the 1980s, according to Andrew Nelson, a University of North Texas researcher specializing in Bhutanese refugees.
The policy banned the teaching of the Nepali language in schools and required residents to dress in the traditional clothing of the Drukpa. Many ethnic Nepalis who lacked formal land titles or a record of paying land taxes back to the 1950s were denied citizenship, Nelson said.
A 2003 Human Rights Watch report cited cases of the government torturing prisoners, destroying houses, forcing people off their land and other abuses. The group also noted reports of some violent actions by more militant government opponents.
Mangala Sharma, a Bhutanese-American and founder of Bhutanese Refugees Aid for Victims of Violence, said many ethnic Nepalis protested peacefully against the repression, but a few demonstrations turned into violent clashes.
Between 1990 and 1993, more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, many of whom came from families that had lived and farmed in southern Bhutan for generations, wound up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Many languished in those camps for two decades or more.
“It was very, very devastating,” Sharma said. “A whole generation of people was stateless. My family’s land was given away … to someone in the northern part of the country.”
About 18,000 refugees still lived in the two remaining camps as of late 2015, according to the United Nations.
Of the nearly 100,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled around the world, 85 percent have come to the United States, according to the U.S. government.
More than 3,000 Bhutanese refugees were originally settled in Washington state. About 2,000 remain here, said Birendra Khadka, a supervisor for the local office of the International Rescue Committee.