New American Series

Here begins a series on the five largest ethnic groups the Center for New Americans has resettled in Sioux Falls recently.  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

 New American Series: The Bhutanese-Nepali

Conflict History

Bhutan (official name: Kingdom of Bhutan) is nestled amongst the Himalayan Mountains between India and China.  Its geographic location had kept it isolated for centuries and outsiders were only allowed to enter starting in the 1970s.  The Drukpa people are the ethnic majority in Bhutan, practicing Buddhism and speaking Dzongkha.[1] They live mostly in the northern part of the country.

According to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center’s Refugee Backgrounder:  The great majority of Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people who in the late 1800s began immigrating to southern Bhutan—lowland, malarial-infested regions shunned by the Druk Buddhist majority—in search of farmland. There they became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”).

Contact between the Druk in the north and the Lhotsampas in the south was limited, and over the years, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. Relations between the groups were for the most part conflict free. Under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958, the Lhotsampas enjoyed Bhutanese citizenship and were allowed to hold government jobs.[2]

Starting in the 1980s; however, there was a change in the government’s attitude towards the Lhotsampas as the Druk majority began a policy of “Bhutanization,” desiring a unified language, culture, and religion.

The policies imposed the Druk dress code and customs on the Lhotsampas and prohibited the use of the Nepali language in schools. Nepali teachers were dismissed, and Nepali books were reportedly burned. The government also established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights.2

In 1990, violent clashes between politically organized Lhotsampas and the Bhutanese government led to tens of thousands fleeing to refugee camps in Nepal and India’s West Bengal.  Others were forced to sign “voluntary migration certificates” before being expelled from the country.  The goal of repatriation, always discussed between the Nepali and Bhutanese governments, has proven fruitless in over twenty years of discussions.  Several political roadblocks have prevented Bhutanese refugees from settling permanently in Nepal.

Local integration has not been possible for political reasons. Moreover, Nepali government policy denies the refugees two basic rights that are prerequisites for local integration: freedom of movement and the right to work and earn a living.2

With no movement towards repatriation or local integration in over twenty years, resettlement was seen as the only solution for the over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in 7 refugee camps in Nepal.  Resettlement to the United States began in late 2007.

Photo courtesy of COR Center

Photo courtesy of COR Center


[1] “Bhutan Profile” BBC News, 4 June 2013. Web. 20 October 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12480707&gt;

[2] Ranard, Donald A. “Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal.” Cultural Orientation Resource Center. Center for Applied Linguistics, October 2007. Web. 20 October 2013. <http://www.culturalorientation.net/learning/populations/bhutanese&gt;

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