Bhutanese refugees leaving Nepal passes 40,000

A campaign to resettle ethnic Nepalese forced out of Bhutan two decades ago has found homes for 40,000 refugees in Western countries, although tens of thousands continue to wait, an official said Monday.

More than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese — a Hindu minority in Bhutan for centuries — were forced out of Bhutan in the early 1990s by authorities who wanted to impose the country's dominant Buddhist culture. They have lived as refugees in Nepal ever since.

The United Nations — with the help of the United States and other countries — set up the resettlement program in July 2007. More than 60,000 refugees originally signed up, while the rest said they preferred to wait in camps or try to return to Bhutan. The first refugees began leaving Nepal in November 2007 and they have resettled in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The 40,000th refugee was to leave Nepal on Monday, and 50,000 others have now applied, said Stephen Jaquemet, a U.N. refugee agency official.

More than 34,000 refugees have relocated to the United States, said Scott DeLisi, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal. He said the U.S. is willing to take in a large portion of the 50,000 new applicants.

Bhutan refuses to allow the refugees to return, saying most left voluntarily and renounced their citizenship. Nepal — worried about the cost of integrating them into society — has refused to offer them citizenship.

Relations between Nepal and Bhutan have been strained over the issue. Several rounds of talks were held over the last two decades, but no significant progress was made.

The refugees have lived in seven U.N.-run camps about 310 miles (500 kilometers) east of the capital, Katmandu.