The International Observatory on Statelessness


In 1995, around 3.4 million stateless people were residing in Nepal. Government efforts to register and formally recognize stateless people have dramatically reduced the number by 2.6 million. Individuals from Tibet and Bhutan are also stateless there.

An estimated 20,000 Tibetan refugees are in Nepal. Many of them live in Kathmandu and surrounding areas. They have no defined legal status and are generally divided into two classes: (1) residents who entered Nepal before 1989 and their children, and (2) new arrivals with no right to remain in Nepal. Tibetans cannot travel to certain restricted regions of Nepal, typically those near the border with China. Nonetheless, an estimated 3,000 refugees travel back to Tibet each year.

While Nepal’s Citizenship Act makes many Tibetan residents theoretically eligible for citizenship, the government does not view citizenship as a viable option for Tibetans. Officials argue Tibetans never relinquished their prior citizenship and discrimination against them runs high. The government has given the initial 20,000 Tibetans Refugee Identity Cards, but refuses to give such identification to any of the 5,000 Tibetan children born in the country or any who arrived in the country after 1989.

Over 100,000 individuals of Nepali origin were stripped of their citizenship and forcibly expelled from Bhutan in the early 1990s, and their right to return has been systematically obstructed by the Bhutanese government. They are also refused citizenship in Nepal.

The stateless Bhutanese in Nepal are predominantly Hindus from southern Bhutan, ethnically and culturally distinct from the majority ethnic group and ruling elite, the Buddist Ngalongs from northern Bhutan. Most of the individuals sought safety in Nepal where they now live in camps administered by UNHCR. After many rounds of joint ministerial talks between Nepal and Bhutan, the refugees are no closer to returning to their homes in Bhutan.

In 2007, the U.S. agreed to resettle approximately 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. By the end of 2008, more than 7,000 refugees had been resettled.

Nepal has instituted some reforms to deal with its stateless population. The Nepalese Citizenship Act of 2006 provides that a person born in Nepal before April of 1990 and who permanently resides there is a Nepalese citizen by birth. The act also now allows foreign women married to Nepalese citizens to apply for citizenship once they have renounced their previous citizenship.