Stateless quota refugees from Bhutan cannot obtain Danish citizenship

Although they were specially selected as vulnerable illiterates, Denmark maintains them in lifelong statelessness. Read the open letter from 845 resident Bhutanese to the Minister of Integration

"Even though we have lived in Denmark for more than a decade, only two percent of us have obtained citizenship. So, in relation to our biggest problem – being stateless and thus without full rights and not belonging to any state – we have not achieved anything else than being moved from one place on the globe to another"
     - Thugten Drukpa

Between 2008 and 2015, Denmark brought 845 refugees to the country via the UN resettlement programme. They were part of the approx. 100,000 people who in the 1990s were stripped of their citizenship in Bhutan, thrown out of their homeland and ended up in refugee camps in Nepal. Most people in the Danish quota were selected for being particularly vulnerable because they were over 50, with mental and physical problems, and had never attended school. Disabilities which, paradoxically, prevent them from becoming citizens of the host country which had promised them residence "with a view to permanent residence".
Only two percent of the original 845 have obtained Danish citizenship despite their stay of between eight and 15 years in the country. The group has increased to 1,045 through child births and family reunification, and the children who were born in Denmark have been granted citizenship as stateless persons. But not their parents, grandparents and older siblings. Those who came here as children have to choose between education or an unskilled job, e.g. Bhupas, whom we wrote about in 2019.

"It went well for me. Today I am Dane, and nothing else. I speak and dream in Danish; I feel proud of Danish history and democratic values. I passionately defend the efficient Danish welfare system to my American cousins. Yet my lack of certain papers makes my life very different from that of my friends – I am still stateless."
   - Bhupas, came when he was 11 years old

Denmark has signed at least three conventions which oblige the state to facilitate refugees and stateless persons' access to citizenship: the Refugee Convention, the 1954 Statelessness Convention and the European Convention on Citizenship. In a report on statelessness in Denmark from 2019, UNHCR recommended that Danish law significantly relaxes the naturalization requirements. UNHCR has particularly recommended that older stateless persons be exempted from having to meet the language and knowledge requirements, as they may otherwise be barred from obtaining Danish citizenship. But the only relaxation Denmark has ever introduced is to lower the residence requirement from 9 to 8 years.
Being illiterate should grant exemption from both language and work requirements, but it doesn't, neither for permanent residence nor for citizenship. Refugees Welcome has advised some of the elderly Bhutanese concerning dispensation, unfortunately it has been in vain. Only 45 have obtained permanent residence, and only 17 have become Danish citizens.

We include below the open letter from The Bhutanese Association in Denmark, and you can also read the minister's response here (in Danish). He is very happy with the quota system but believes that you have to "earn" Danish citizenship and refers to the fact that you can apply for dispensation and that there are “more relaxed requirements” for stateless persons. Allow us to note that for example in 2021 there were only four people who were exempted from the language requirement/citizenship test due to illness/disability, and being illiterate does not count as a disability.
In Refugees Welcome, we have fought for many years for refugees' special right to citizenship, and we believe that this case illustrates the unfair rules very clearly. No matter how much of an effort certain people make, they will never obtain the citizenship which they long for more than anything else. Denmark does not live up to its promises, neither to the individual refugee, to the UN nor to human rights.

Some of the Bhutanese refugees in Denmark.

Open Letter to the Government of Denmark to address the statelessness issue among the country's resettled Bhutanese refugees


Minister for Immigration and Integration
Kaare Dybvad
Your Excellency,
First of all, on behalf of The Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark (ABCD) I would like to extend our gratitude and appreciation to the government and the people of Denmark for granting us resettlement in this beautiful country.
Initially, we, the Bhutanese refugees having lived in UNHCR-aided refugee camps in Nepal for several years without having any hope of returning to Bhutan, were very enthusiastic and happy to get a chance to resettle in Denmark. We hoped this would be an opportunity to rebuild our lives and eventually end our statelessness by acquiring Danish citizenship. But as time passed, we realized that given the strict immigration and naturalization laws in place, our dream of becoming Danish citizens has not yet been possible to be fulfilled.
We were surprised that Denmark’s strict immigration and naturalization regulations are applied even to refugees like us, who have been expelled from our country, deprived of nationality, and whom the Danish government itself brought to Denmark under the UNHCR third country resettlement program. UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook defines resettlement as the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status. Denmark’s participation in the UNHCR program should be on these terms.
We, Bhutanese refugees, are not the product of an economic crisis or war, nor is our situation produced due to natural disasters. We were made refugees due to a political crisis. We were living in the UNHCR-aided refugee camps in Nepal and had to accept a proposed country of resettlement. Before resettling in Denmark, we were informed during orientation that citizenship could be obtained if certain criteria were met. However, the extremely strict requirements have prevented most of us from acquiring a nationality.

During our stay in refugee camps in Nepal, we made several attempts to return to our country by urging the international community to help us through talks with the Bhutanese government. As a result, 15 rounds of unsuccessful bilateral talks were held between Bhutan and Nepal, leading to the formation of a joint verification team to categorize Bhutanese refugees into four groups: those who had been evicted, those who had emigrated, those with criminal records, and non-Bhutanese individuals. But our dismay was that only around 150 refugees among around 110,000 were categorized as genuine Bhutanese. The verification process was flawed and appeared to be merely a superficial effort to appease the international community. Despite being the closest neighbor, India showed no interest.

We also made attempts through peace marches from Nepal to Bhutan to appeal to the Bhutanese government to take us back. We were even denied entry to Bhutan by the Bhutanese regime, who instead sent our peace marches back by force on trucks. This clearly shows that the Bhutanese government is unwilling to take us back. It is our misfortune that this crisis made us stateless. After so many years of failure to find a lasting solution to the Bhutanese refugee crises, UNHCR opted for third-country resettlement in different countries as a permanent solution. Even after this third-country resettlement program being launched, there are still around 6,000 Bhutanese refugees in camps in Nepal, attempting in despair to get repatriated.

As per our recent data analysis, Denmark has resettled a total of 845 Bhutanese refugees in various parts of the country from 2008 until 2015, when the resettlement program was suspended. They were primarily UNHCR-verified vulnerable people who needed immediate protection due to their illiteracy, mental health, and physical health issues.
Following our resettlement in Denmark, we have been fortunate to have equal access to top-quality healthcare, education, and a thriving economy, for which we are immensely grateful. However, the lack of citizenship denies us a sense of belonging, which is crucial to feeling fully integrated into our new home. Despite living in Denmark for over a decade, only 17 out of the initial 845 Bhutanese refugees have been granted citizenship, while 45 individuals have secured permanent residency. Most significantly, 201 elderly individuals aged 50 and above and 99 individuals born in refugee camps in Nepal who are currently under 18 years old are among the most affected by this situation.
94% of the elderly resettled Bhutanese in Denmark (aged 50 years and more) had never attended schooling and are illiterate. These people will severely struggle to pass the Danish language test (PD2), which is mandatory to apply for permanent residence status. Although many have participated in language classes trying to pass the test. Despite their best effort, they could not pass the test due to difficulties in learning a second language without ever having been formally educated in their own language.

Among the other mandatory requirements to apply for permanent residence is proof of having worked full-time jobs or been self-employed in Denmark for at least three years and six months within the last four years before a decision on a permanent residence permit is made. In addition to the mandatory requirements, 2 out of 4 supplementary requirements must also be fulfilled, which are that the applicant must have been in work for at least 4 years prior to applying for permanent residence, must have passed Danish language test (PD3), must have passed an active citizenship test or shown proof of being an active citizen, and/or must have an annual taxable income of an average of DKK 309,824.37 (2023 level) or more. Similar or even more restrictive requirements apply for the applicant to be naturalized. These requirements are impossible to fulfill for our elderly, illiterate community members.
While these illiterate individuals struggle to access the job market due to their inability to learn Danish properly, only 24 individuals have secured full-time employment. Yet, they still lack sufficient Danish language capacities to fulfill the requirement. Among the others, 54 individuals are unable to work and have been granted early retirement, while 68 individuals are pensioners. The remaining individuals either work part-time, undergo training, pursue flexible jobs, or are jobless. Despite their best efforts, they are unlikely to meet the general requirements for permanent residency. Even fulfilling harder requirements, such as the mandatory PD3 language test for citizenship, appears almost impossible.
For above mentioned 99 individuals who arrived in Denmark at an early age and are currently under 18, the situation is especially daunting, as they need time to pursue a university education and fulfill job requirements before being eligible for citizenship, which may take until their early thirties. Despite having grown up in Denmark with no other home, they still face a prolonged wait to become Danish citizens depending on their current age.
At present, due to the issue of statelessness, the mental health situation of some members of the Bhutanese community in Denmark is very challenging. Even after having been resettled in Denmark for more than ten years, they continue to be stateless as they were in refugee camps in Nepal after being evicted from Bhutan during the 1990s. They have now endured more than thirty years of statelessness since then. Older people who fled Bhutan during the 1990s once had Bhutanese citizenship. We, younger people, never have had citizenship of any country in our entire life. How many more years do we still have to be stateless in a country like Denmark, which teaches human rights to the whole world-, and which, on its initiative, bought us to live in Denmark permanently?
810 individuals out of a current total of 1010 just have a temporary residence permit and travel document, which must be renewed every one or two years and is a very troublesome process for illiterate people. With these documents, our possibilities of moving to meet our families, relatives, and friends in other parts of the world are hampered.
Instead of issuing us citizenship, we were terrified to receive official letters enquiring if we wanted to get repatriated to Bhutan. It is a massive embarrassment for us in Denmark to get such a letter from the government, which brought us here after agreeing to allow us to live in Denmark for the rest of our life with full dignity and honor. Whereas, as already mentioned, other countries that resettled our fellow former Bhutanese refugees have duly issued citizenship to most of them after they fulfilled more lenient criteria.
It was unfortunate to have to remind our host country of the well-established fact that Bhutan, the land of our origin, considers us enemies, and non-citizens could not even allow us to visit as tourists, let alone accept us to get repatriated.
Meanwhile, Denmark has tightened its immigration and naturalization laws, subjecting all immigrants to the same requirements. However, as refugees like us brought to Denmark under the UN quota with no other place to call home, being stateless for the rest of our lives feels like Denmark is promoting statelessness.
We, therefore, through this letter, appeal to the Danish government to consider our situation as an exceptional one and grant us Danish citizenship. Unlike most other immigrants, the government brought us here to live here permanently. Permitting us to remain stateless for the rest of our lives is more than humiliating for us as human beings. We came to this country not only to survive but also to build a dignified life with full citizenship rights and responsibilities. We would be grateful for the chance to integrate into Danish society fully.
We look forward to your kind consideration and sympathetic action, please.
With Kind Regards
Thugten Dorjee Drukpa
President for Association of Bhutanese Communities in Denmark

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