New levels of graft
Sudha Ramachandran reports on a recent scandal involving Nepali politicians that has angered and shamed a nation already inured to corruption
A refugee scam in Nepal, which came to light a couple of months ago, has laid bare corruption involving top Nepali ministers and officials. It has not only deepened Nepali public anger with the political and bureaucratic establishment but has also damaged the image of Nepal in the eyes of the world.
The scam relates to a politician-official-scammer network in Nepal that promised to provide Nepali citizens with fabricated documents, presenting them as Bhutanese refugees and thus enabling them to migrate to the US. Some 875 Nepali citizens were promised passage to the United States in return for vast sums of money. The plan was to provide them with documents faking their identity, which would allow them to benefit from a US refugee settlement program for Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal.
Among those in the dock are former Deputy Prime Minister Bahadur Rayamajhi, former Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand, former Home Secretary Tek Narayan Pandey, Khand’s personal secretary Narendra KC, and Bhutanese refugee leader Tek Nath Rizal.The ringleader of the scam is Keshav Dulal. On June 16, the Kathmandu district court sent them, along with ten other defendants, into judicial custody. They have been charged with treason, organised crime, fraud and forgery, and will remain in jail during the court trial.
The resettlement program was aimed at Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal. Known as Lhotsampas, these are people of ethnic Nepali origin.
In the early 1990s, the Bhutanese government decided to revoke the citizenship of the Lhotsampas, who comprised a sixth of Nepal’s population. Around 108,000 fled Bhutan and were living as refugees in seven UNHCR-run camps in Jhapa and Morang districts in eastern Nepal.
In the decades thereafter, with the Nepali and Bhutanese governments failing to negotiate the repatriation of the refugees back to Bhutan, a few Western countries stepped forward to provide a permanent solution to the problem, agreeing to resettle refugees on their soil. Under the program for third-country resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, around 100,000 were resettled in the US, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, the UK and other countries.
The US took on the bulk of the Bhutanese refugees; 85 per cent of the 100,000 were resettled there between 2007 and 2016. But, with the winding down of the program in 2016, an estimated 8,000–10,000 refugees remained in camps in Nepal.
In June 2019, the Nepali government set up a task force led by then Joint Secretary Balkrishna Panthi to recommend ‘permanent and long-term solutions to the problem of the Bhutanese refugees’ left behind. The task force was to explore how to deal with Bhutanese refugees registered but not resettled, and with those left out of the registration process.
The scam involved manipulation of this process.
Apparently, the task force was bombarded with applications from purported Bhutanese refugees claiming they had been left out of the list and hence left behind. Many of these applications were from the Nepali citizens who now held fake Bhutanese refugee documents.
It emerged subsequently that a gang led by Keshav Dulal had persuaded 875 Nepali citizens to pay them millions of rupees to get them to the United States. They roped in ministers and officials to provide them with fraudulent documents identifying the citizens as Bhutanese refugees who had beenleft unregistered.
The gang succeeded in getting the names of these Nepali citizens included in the task force report as unregistered Bhutanese refugees who wished to be resettled abroad.Their Facebook pages were updated with photographs of them reportedly meeting American officials.
Finally, the scam came to light when over 160 victims, frustrated with their long wait to get to America and having paid large sums in bribes, registered a complaint with the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA).
Corruption is widespread in Nepal. The country ranked 110th out of 180 countries and territories in 2022 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Although the Nepalis are inured to well-entrenched corruption, the ‘fake Bhutanese refugee scam’, as it is known, has evoked unprecedented outrage and disgust in the country.
To the Nepali people, the country’s politicians, long notorious for their corrupt and unprincipled conduct, have shamed them in the eyes of the world.
The scam has laid bare the involvement of politicians from across political parties.Rayamajhi and Khand belong to the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist and the Nepali Congress, respectively. Dulal is close to Nepali Congress politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala.
Nepali politicians are notorious for squabbling over power. This scam has underscored how easily they are able to join hands and work together when it comes to making a fast buck by looting the Nepali people, misusing their power and manipulating institutions to indulge in corrupt practices.
President Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre has promised to bring the accused to book and to deliver justice to the victims of the scam.
However, many Nepalis are sceptical. Dahal’s government is fragile and dependent on the Nepali Congress. Will he act against NC politicians and their associates who facilitated the scam? Will the investigation and trial selectively target parties like the CPN-UML, which are at daggers drawn with Dahal? Will parties collude to ensure their leaders stay out of jail? Will the trial be an eyewash?
The fake Bhutanese refugee scam has stained Nepal’s image. Importantly, countries that have hitherto backed Nepal’s refugee programs will now think twice before extending their support.
In an additional development, there has been speculation over FBI involvement in the probe into the refugee scam. ‘The current allegations of corruption and the unlawful fabrication of refugee documents in Nepal is a matter for the Government of Nepal to investigate, as a sovereign democratic nation that has committed to transparency and accountability,’an FBI spokesperson told Hindustan Times.
Prime Minister Dahal said he didnot think the FBI was involved in the investigation but added that ‘they must have shown concern’over the manipulation of the Bhutanese refugee resettlement program. ‘I think they must be watching it in one way or the other.’
Meanwhile, the Dahal government is underplaying the plight of genuine refugees residing in camps cursed by uncertainties While the top leaders from different sections are busy seeking pelf and power, the concerns of Bhutanese refugees are largely ignored.
Ultimately, it is these genuine Bhutanese refugees who will suffer the most, and who are the scam’s real, unwitting victims. Unwanted in Bhutan, they are unwelcome in Nepal. They fled discrimination and violence in Bhutan and have been languishing in refugee camps for decades. Left out of the registration process for some reason, they are stuck in Nepal.With the resettlement plan coming to an end, funds allotted for their wellbeing have dried up. Although Nepal is their sole caretaker, for decades the Nepali government curbed all income-generating activities within the camps and has restricted their movement around the country.
Hence, it is apparent that, sadly, integrating Bhutanese refugees into Nepali society is not an option.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.email@example.com