Yet another scandal has emerged in the country, involving Bhutanese refugees this time. A distressing case of organised crime and corruption, where prominent Nepali politicians, bureaucrats, and aides of major political leaders colluded with a gang to amass millions of rupees by falsely claiming Nepali citizens as Bhutanese refugees.
The fraudulent scheme began after the incumbent Home Minister — Ram Bahadur Thapa in the KP Oli government formed a task force in July 2019 to recommend ways to manage the Bhutanese refugee who remain in Nepal following the closure of the resettlement programme in 2016-end. The task force was formed under the leadership of incumbent Home Joint Secretary — Bal Krishna Panthi.
Following the decision, the gang seized the opportunity to sell the “American dream” to Nepali citizens by implying close connections with government officials. They charged exorbitant money ranging from Rs 1 million to Rs 5 million such that few individuals resorted to selling their houses to finance the registration.
As per the report by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal, the gang then manipulated the task force report by inserting schedules 9 (a) and 9 (b) which contained the list of 875 Nepali citizens registered as Bhutanese refugees under the new categories of “those who missed registration” and “those interested in rehabilitation in a third country” respectively.
Operating with impunity, deceiving and exploiting vulnerable individuals, their activities unfolded after police arrested gang leader Keshav Dulal on March 26 this year.
Police so far have made 12 arrests, including former Home Minister — Bal Krishna Khand and Tek Narayan Pandey — former Home Secretary and currently Secretary at the Office of the Vice President.
Below is the timeline that tracks the incidents from the beginning of the Bhutanese refugee crisis to the rise of the fake refugee scandal.
- The Bhutanese government introduces the “One Nation, One People” policy, which aims to enforce a uniform national culture and identity.
- The policy discriminates against ethnic Nepalis in Bhutan, known as Lhotshampas, and deems them illegal immigrants.
- Protests erupt in southern Bhutan against the “One Nation, One People” policy.
- The Bhutanese government responded with a crackdown and arrests of Lhotshampa activists.
- The Bhutanese government begins a campaign of forced evictions against ethnic Nepalis after labelling them “illegal aliens” through their citizenship law.
- Many are forced to leave Bhutan and seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
- Bhutanese refugees flee to Nepal through India and settle in Jhapa and Morang.
- The number of refugees in Nepal reaches approximately 120,000.
- The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes refugee camps in eastern Nepal to provide aid and shelter to Bhutanese refugees.
- The Nepali government offers resettlement to third countries with cooperation from Australia, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the US coming together to provide resettlement opportunities for Bhutanese refugees who live in seven camps in Jhapa and Morang.
November 19, 2015:
- Over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees are successfully resettled to third countries, with the majority going to the US, according to the UNHCR.
- Fewer than 18,000 refugees remain in the two camps.
November 19, 2018:
- The World Food Programme (WFP), which has been providing cash and food support to refugees since their arrival in 1992, announces the phasing out of the program in January 2019 citing a successful resettlement programme.
July 14, 2019:
- The government led by KP Sharma Oli forms a task force led by Bal Krishna Panthi, the incumbent joint secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, to recommend ways to manage the Bhutanese refugees who remain in Nepal following the closure of the resettlement programme in 2016-end.
- The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Office in Damak announces to phase out its operation by 2020 citing the completion of most of their work and making arrangements for the basic needs of remaining refugees.
- By the end of 2020, UNHCR hands over the remaining refugees to the Nepal government and shuts down the Damak office.
- The task force forms in December 2019.
- An organised gang begins activities in Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Dang, Gorkha, Baglung, and other districts and starts taking money from Nepalis, promising to register them as fake Bhutanese refugees to send them to the US. The gang collects Rs 1 million to Rs 5 million from each victim.
- Panthi-led task force submits its report to the then Home Secretary Prem Kumar Rai, current CIAA chief, who was in office from April 9, 2018, to February 3, 2020.
- UNHCR unveils a factsheet that mentions 113,500 Bhutanese refugees settled in eight third countries from 2007 to the end of 2016.
- The victims file a complaint with the Kathmandu Valley Crime Investigation Office, and the office registers the complaint, which stated Niraj Rai and his father Indrajit Rai, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa’s security advisor, along with other aides had taken Rs 56 million from various people claiming to send them to the US by registering them as Bhutanese refugees.
Bal Krishna Khand — a prominent leader of the Nepali Congress — served as the Home Minister and Tek Narayan Pandey served as the Home Secretary at the time. Basant Bahadur Kunwar (the current IGP) was the chief of the Valley Crime Investigation Office then and was in line to be promoted to Inspector General.
- The investigation gains momentum after the home secretary Pandey was transferred to the Office of the Vice President, and Home Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha instructs a thorough investigation into the case.
- The District Police Range starts investigating the case as an organised crime.
June 14, 2022:
- The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Nepal Police launches an investigation into a criminal group involved in the fraud.
March 26, 2023:
- Keshav Dulal, the leader of the gang, along with his associates Sanu Bhandari and Tek Gurung is arrested.
March 29, 2023:
- Sagar Thulung Rai, former ward chair of Pathari Shanishchare - 10 and fourth member of the gang, is arrested.
- Dulal and Bhandari confess to giving money to Indrajit Rai and his son Niraj for fake Bhutanese refugee documents.
- Sandesh Sharma, a local of the Dang district, is arrested by a team of Kathmandu Valley Crime Investigation Office personnel from Kathmandu.
May 2, 2023:
- Indrajit Rai, the security advisor to former Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, is arrested.
May 3, 2023:
- Tek Narayan Pandey — secretary at the Office of Vice President and former Home Secretary, and Sandeep Rayamajhi — son of former Deputy Prime Minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi are arrested.
- Arrest warrants are issued against former Deputy PM and CPN (UML) secretary Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, Pratik Thapa — son of former Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Niraj Rai.
May 7, 2023:
- Audio of a conversation between a victim and a gang member leak that mentions parliamentarians and Nepali Congress leaders — Arzu Rana Deuba (wife of former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba) and Manju Khand (wife of Bal Krishna Khand) have received millions of rupees in relation to the fake Bhutanese refugee scandal.
- Both parliamentarians responded claiming that the audio is fake. They lodge a complaint with the police and the Press Council against the online portal that released the audio.
May 9, 2023:
- Govind Chaudhary of Siraha and Ram Sharma KC of Kathmandu are arrested from Kathmandu in connection with the case.
May 10, 2023:
- Bal Krishna Khand along with his aide Narendra KC are arrested.
- Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, who has been on the run, is suspended from the post of party secretary at CPN (UML).
- Top Bahadur Rayamajhi sends an email to the parliament claiming he is ill.
- The task force report has not been made public yet.
- Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, Pratik Thapa, and Niraj Rai remain on the run.
- Investigation continues over the involvement of other government officials who aided in tampering with the report and the involvement of Arzu Rana Deuba, Manju Khand, and Prem Kumar Rai (current CIAA chief) in the scandal.