History of Tibetan refugees in Bhutan (since 1959)

In 1959, Bhutan granted asylum to several thousand Tibetan refugees after the Chinese took control of Tibet. The Tibetan refugees were fleeing famine, uprising, suppression, and persecution during Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’sGreat Leap Forward“. Chinese demographers have estimated that 90,000 Tibetans became refugees. The people of Bhutan deeply sympathized with the refugees and extended assistance as much as possible within their capacity. Tibetan refugees who renounced the right to return to Tibet were granted Bhutanese citizenship, however the majority told Bhutanese authorities they would like to return to Tibet one day. As a result, they remained refugees.

Tibetan settlements in Bhutan

In 1981, many Tibetan refugees in Bhutan chose to permanently resettle in India, and they were allowed to do so. About half of the initial Tibetan refugees chose to remain in Bhutan and continued to live in seven settlements located across Bhutan. The seven Tibetan settlements in Bhutan are: Khunpheling (village of Karche), Namling (village of Badgarnang), Yidmonling (village of Lhongtso), Raptenling, Kunga Rabtenling, Kelsangling, and Kungaling. Most of the settlements have a small monastery, a primary school, and a small heath clinic.

More information at Central Tibetan Relief Committee

Tibetan refugees’ status in Bhutan

In 1998, there were about 1,500 Tibetans living in Bhutan, and in 2007 there were about 1,883. As of 2013 there are about 1650 Tibetans who have refugee ID card in Bhutan.

Tibetans can apply for a travel document at the Foreign Affairs Office of Bhutan. Processing of this document takes not more than two months. If one gets a travel document, it is intended for a particular destination and back only.

The Department of Immigration under Home Ministry keeps the records of the Tibetan refugees in the country. The ID card issued by this department is valid for one year.

Life in Bhutan

Life remains relatively difficult for Tibetan refugees in Bhutan. Without a security clearance — something they claim is virtually impossible to obtain — Tibetans cannot get government jobs, enrol their children in higher education, or obtain licenses to run private business. Many get around that rule by renting shop licenses off native Bhutanese, but it leaves them in an uncomfortable limbo.

This page was posted on 14 April 2013; updated 29 August 2013.

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