The other face of Bhutan: A report on the latest refugee arrivals in the U.S.


As news media heightens awareness in the Western world of human rights violations in China, Tibet, and Burma, one country’s record seems to have managed to stay hidden: the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.

Westerners have an image of Bhutan as an exotic ideal Shangri-La in the remote Himalayas, a country ruled by a monarchy trying to minimize and control influences from the outside world. Visiting Bhutan is an expensive outlay for tourists. The government imposes a high fee and controls the numbers allowed entry visas. In contrast to this picture, a less idyllic glimpse into life behind the scenes comes from the Bhutanese refugees arriving in the US. Ms. Mangala Sharma, herself a refugee from Bhutan, and a recent arrival in Minnesota, gave a talk to members of the Minnesota refugee consortium, April 10, 2008. She gave a first hand account of the torture, rape and oppression of ethic minorities in Bhutan, life in the refugee camps and tips to help Voluntary Agencies assist Bhutanese families resettle.

Persecution and torture of Ethnic Nepali in Bhutan
The Nepali had been living in Bhutan peacefully for over two hundred years, six or seven generations, But conditions started to change in 1988, when the government census revealed the size of ethnic Nepali. They numbered about 35% of the 700,000 total population. Alarmed by the figures, the government forces have wanted to decrease Nepalese influence. The split in Bhutan is polarized between the dominant majority Bhutan in the north and the ethnic Nepali speaking minorities in the south. Over the last two decades, under a policy of ‘one nation under law’ the government enforced on the Nepali the same dress code, religions and same rituals. Following brutal government crackdowns on their demonstrations in 1990, the ethnic Nepali minorities in Bhutan have been fleeing across the border into Nepal. There are now over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan living in seven refugee camps in Eastern Nepal. Some have been there for seventeen years.

Bhutanese Refugees Demographic Profile

* Hindu (largest group) (60-70%)

* Buddhists ( 20-25%)

* Kirat (indigenous/animist) (5-8%)

* Christians (2-3%)

Average family size ranges from 6-8 members. 100% speak Nepali. 35% of the population speak some English. 25% have little or no education, although about 5-7% have University or College level higher education.

Following the instability in Nepal, one of the world’s largest resettlement operations started in March 2008. The U.S. had announced in 2006 a plan to resettle 60,000 refugees from Bhutan. Over 100 refugees have been resettled in Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Nebraska and Chicago. Anticipated arrival is much higher. Over 12,000 names have been submitted by UNHCR to the U.S. Forty people are expected to arrive in Minnesota in the next few months. About 200 more might come over the next year. Ms Sharma said, “This is a multi-year resettlement program.” As Minnesota does not accept any ‘free cases,’ all the families coming to Minnesota are friends and relatives of the Sharma family. Ms. Sharma described life in the camps in Nepal as very well managed and well structured. As students graduated from the camp schools, they went on to develop teaching skills through teaching the younger students in the camp schools. Ms. Sharma had been very active helping refugees organize their life in the refugee camps and now is an anchor for new arrivals.

Cultural conflicts and challenges
Ms. Sharma said that the elderly are the most vulnerable. “My greatest concern is that they feel isolated and experience depression.” There are people with physical challenges, and people with a history of mental health issues. There are a significant number of torture victims, and victims of gender based violence. Currently Ms. Sharma is organizing support for the families who are new arrivals. She said that the old caste system still has some impact for social life among the older Bhutanese, and may affect housing arrangements, but caste is a lesser issue for the younger generations. Many Bhutanese are vegetarians. Rice, dhal and vegetables are food staples. They don’t touch beef or pork and would not want jobs in meat packaging. There are strict taboos in the home around kitchens and foods. It will take them time to adjust to new cultural differences even in basics like eye contact, hand shakes and greetings.

Refugee Skills and Talents
In addition to teaching and interpreting skills, some of the refugees have skills that will help them transfer to employment here in the U.S. such as tailoring, weaving, sewing and shoe making. Ms. Sharma said they were excited to see the Hmong vendors and Asian produce in the farmers markets in St. Paul, Minnesota, and they welcome access to community garden plots so families can continue farming. Like the Karen and the Tibetan refugees, the Bhutanese families will settle close to each other, develop support groups so that they can help each other.

Ms. Sharma is one of the first refugees from Bhutan to reach Minnesota. She is a dynamic spokesperson and an inspiring community leader. To assist in Bhutan resettlement please contact Ms. Magala Sharma at:

David Zander is an Anthropologist at the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and can be reached at David.zander@