Background

  • More than 100,000 ethnic Nepali Bhutanese from southern Bhutan have been living in camps in eastern Nepal since they were expelled from their homes in Bhutan over 16 years ago.
  • The refugees have been unable to return to their homes in Bhutan or to settle permanently in Nepal.
  • Approximately 107,000 refugees live in the seven refugee camps. 
  • The population is nearly evenly divided between males and females. Children under 18 make up little more than 35% of the population, with nearly 8% under the age of 5. Adults age 60 and over make up nearly 7% of the population.

Language, Religion, and Traditional Practices

  • Nearly all the refugees speak Nepali as a first or second language. 
  • UNHCR estimates that about 35% of the population has a functional knowledge of English.
  • Of the population, 60% are Hindu, 27% are Buddhists, and about 10% are Kirat, an indigenous religion similar to animism. The percentage of Christians in each camp varies from 1% to 7%.
  • A typical meal for the refugees consists of rice, lentils, and curry. Some people abstain from meat. Because of the Hindu belief that cows are sacred, Hindus do not eat beef. Refugee camp residents commonly eat chicken and goat.
  • The average household size is 8 persons, and includes elderly parents, married sons and their wives and children, and unmarried children.  Extended family members, such as aunts, uncles, and cousins, are considered a part of the immediate family.
  • Gender roles are distinct and clearly defined. Girls experience heavier household workloads than boys, a distinction that continues into adulthood. Women generally do not have equal access to information and resources and do not enjoy equal decision-making authority in the family and the community.
  • Polygamy, while not common, is practiced. Of the more than 15,000 households in the camps, there are more than 500 with a polygamous marriage or relationship within the household. Often the two wives are blood relatives, and sometimes one of the wives is disabled or in some need of extra help.
  • Arranged and early marriages are a feature of traditional culture.
  • Traditional medicine practices exist alongside those of modern medicine.

Adjusting to America

  • The camp population includes refugees with little exposure to urban amenities and very limited knowledge of life in the West.  Most will not be familiar with modern cooking appliances and practices.
  • For rural refugees who have lived for years in camps with little opportunity to work, employment will be a challenging experience.
  • Many in the refugee population will arrive at the US with little or no English abilities.
  • Many older members of the refugee group (and most of the older orthodox Hindus of higher caste populations) will not eat food that has meats, eggs, or any cooked food. Resettlement agencies should focus more on providing fruit, bread, lentils, rice (to be cooked later by the refugees themselves), and other vegetarian items.
  • Wives divorced by polygamous husbands obligated to divorce all but one wife in order to gain admission to the U.S may require extra attention.

Caste System

  • The complex Hindu caste system of the Bhutanese refugees (based upon and similar to the Indian caste system, but not exactly the same) is a means for ensuring social and economic cohesion and hierarchy in a population that is ethnically diverse.
  • While the more modern and educated members of the population do not necessarily adhere to all elements of the caste system, the more traditional members are very strict, particularly if they are of the upper castes.
  • For some families, if visitors not of their caste enter their house, ritual purification by a priest will be required after the visit. Thus care should be taken to seek the permission of a family before entering the house. It is also important to request permission to enter prayer rooms and the kitchen, and food should not be touched. Unexpected visits may also be unwelcome.
  • Grouping members of different castes in the same house or apartment (such as housing singles together) is likely to present substantial difficulties.

References and Further Reading

Ranard, Donald A.  “Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal,” COR Center Refugee Backgrounder 4 (October 2007) http://www.cal.org/co/pdffiles/backgrounder_bhutanese.pdf.

Savada, Andrea Matles, ed.  “Caste and Ethnicity,” Nepal: A Country Study (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1991) http://countrystudies.us/nepal/31.htm.