Rot at the topEverything you need to know about Nepal’s fake refugee scandal (but were too indifferent to ask)
Following the 1989 census in Bhutan, the Druk regime began a systematic crackdown on its Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa people, who made up one-sixth of the country’s original population. By 1992, some 100,000 Bhutan nationals had been driven across India to UNHCR-run camps in eastern Nepal. Starting 2007, about 90,000 were resettled in the United States, with smaller numbers going to the UK, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia. The process was supervised by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). Some 6,000 refugees, mostly elderly, remain in Nepal.
Breaking the News
On 27 March, investigative reporter Devendra Bhattarai of Kantipur broke the story that linked Nepal’s bureaucrats and politicians in a scam to provide false papers to Nepalis pretending to be Bhutanese so they could migrate to the United States.
The US is a much sought-after destination for economic migrants, and many Nepalis in the past have also applied for political asylum in the West, faking persecution by the Maoists or the state during the conflict.
Cast of Characters
More stories came out of fake refugees who had paid up to Rs 5million each to middlemen from Jhapa to take them to the United States. Two of the agents were caught by police, and spilled the beans, implicating Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Ram Bahadur Thapa (Badal), both Maoist leaders who had defected to the UML. Thapa was Home Minister in the K P Oli government in 2018, and set up a task force led by his security adviser to get the paperwork done for the refugees.
One of the middlemen threatened to self-immolate if his deposition implicating other top political figures was not recorded. Police Chief Dan Bahadur Karki’s investigation of the mobile phone data of the recruiters pointed the finger at the wives of former NC Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand.
The middlemen had already paid “higher-ups” to facilitate necessary documentation for nearly 900 fake refugees. Khand had by then become home minister in the Deuba government in 2021, and the recording of an audio leak pointed at the involvement of NC leaders Arzu Deuba and Manju Khand.
The task force was formed in 2020 by the KP Oli government headed by Bal Krishna Panthi, then joint secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, to gather information on refugees from Bhutan who were left out of the refugee registration process for various reasons.
Keshav Dulal, personal adviser to former Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, and Sanu Bhandari, both thought to be the original masterminds, are said to have got access to a proposal written by Panthi in 2021 that included a list of refugees, during the tenure of Khand as home minister with the help of then home secretary Tek Narayan Pandey.
The group is then believed to have added bona fide Nepalis to the list as well, creating false Bhutanese identities and documents after demanding money from their victims multiple times, and promising to settle them in the US.
More than 100 Nepalis who were defrauded have filed complaints with Nepal Police since 2022 after their complaints were not heard in 2021 due to political pressure. But the fake refugees themselves broke the law by illegally impersonating refugees.
The Story So Far
Nepal Police on Wednesday arrested Khand, and were said to be on the lookout for his wife, as well as Rayamajhi and Thapa. Later on Wednesday, Rayamajhi sent a sick note to Parliament to explain his abscence.
Keshav Dulal and Sanu Bhandari have also been detained. Sagar Rai, former ward chair in a village in Jhapa’s Pathani village, is also being investigated for facilitating the payment to the bureaucrats.
Indrajit Rai, the security adviser to former Home Minister Thapa has been arrested, but his son Neeraj Rai is on the run. Rayamajhi’s son, Sandeep, however, has been arrested.
Former Home Secretary Tek Narayan Pandey, who served under Khand, has also been arrested while another former secretary Prem Kumar Rai, who is also said to be involved, currently heads the Centre for the Investigation for the Abuse of Authority (CIAA).
Although top leaders across party lines have called for “thorough and objective” investigation into the scandal, it has not stopped them from desperately meeting one another. KP Oli of the opposition UML has met his arch enemies in the governing coalition, Deuba and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists. He has also met Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha.
The UML only suspended Rayamajhi as party secretary after news of Khand's arrest on Wednesday. There is widespread concern that the three top men will try to sacrifice some scapegoats in order to protect their spouses or close comrades.
There is also speculation that Home Minister Shrestha has not interfered with the investigation because NC, UML and Maoist leaders who defected from his party have so far been implicated.
Nepalis will have to wait if this scam goes further up the chain of command, and what role Deuba will play to protect his wife.
Arzu Deuba herself has forcefully denied involvement in the floor of the House and lodged a complaint at the cyber bureau, calling the leaked audio a smear.
The media exposé and subsequent police investigation have shown that their check and balance role and independence are intact. However, the scandal has confirmed what most Nepalis already knew, that their government is rotten to the core. The federal legislature, controlled by the three main parties, has tried to obstruct debate on the scandal, leading an independent MP to disrobe on the floor of the House in protest this week.
Nepal’s international image has been seriously dented. Its moral high ground on the Bhutan refugee question has been undermined. Nepal’s model historical role to let in persecuted peoples from Tibet, Bhutan, the Rohingya, Somalia, or Afghanistan has now been besmirched. The Nepali passport will now be scrutinised even more minutely.
But more than anything else, the scandal exposes the desperation of Nepalis to vote with their feet, and offers devastating proof that Nepal has been run by the same crooks for the past 35 years.
In the near future, it will be worth noting how this controversy will affect the Bhutanese refugees who remain in Nepal, along with the lives of those who have been resettled across the world. It also remains to be seen how this will affect Nepal's global standing, diplomacy, and its bilateral relationship with the US.