Amaresh Kumar Singh, an independent member of the Nepali parliament, removed his shirt and vest in the House this week in protest after being denied the opportunity to speak on an alleged illegal scheme to transport Nepali residents to the United States as Bhutanese refugees.
Twelve people have been detained in connection with the “refugee scam,” among them the powerful leader of the Nepali Congress, Balkrishna Khand, who served as Home Minister in the administration of former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba from July 2021 to December 2022.
According to media reports, the centre of the suspected human trafficking network is a syndicate of politicians and government officials.
More than 120,000 Bhutanese refugees, who fled their nation after Bhutan’s government imposed some limitations on the religious and cultural practices—and even dress—of individuals of Nepali ancestry, in the 1980s, have lived in Nepal for more than three decades.
The refugees initially arrived in India, but were rapidly forced to Nepal due to India’s lack of hospitality. This occurred in 1989, when India-Nepal ties had reached an all-time low following the Rajiv Gandhi administration’s 18-month economic blockade of Nepal, which was purportedly meant to punish it for purchasing weapons from China.
15 rounds of negotiations on the return of the refugees were held between Nepal and Bhutan over the course of a decade beginning in 1992, but they were unsuccessful. India declined to act as a mediator and asked its neighbours to resolve the conflict.
A committee appointed by the government of the then Prime Minister K P Oli recommended there were still 429 people who were eligible for third-country settlement and that they should be issued refugee identity cards. At this point, seven western nations — the US, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Australia — agreed to take in a total of 113,307 Bhutanese. After this process ended in 2019, however, 429 people were still eligible for third-country settlement.
The claimed syndicate, however, tainted the list by focusing on the list’s weaker members and attempting to inflate it by asserting that numerous migrants had been overlooked in the resettlement procedure. On the promise of a trouble-free flight abroad, enormous sums of money allegedly changed hands.
Some of the people who paid protested to the police and the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Nepal’s constitutional anti-corruption authority, after their plans fell through. According to the accused victims, they paid between Rs 1 and 5 million as “part or advance” payment for international relocation.
An arrest warrant was issued earlier this month for Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, who served as Deputy Prime Minister in the K P Sharma Oli administration. The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) of Oli was led by Rayamajhi, whose position as secretary was removed on May 10; his son Sandeep Rayamajhi is currently being detained.
The first person detained and questioned was Keshab Dulal, a supporter of Nepali Congress politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Sujata Koirala. Indrajit Rai, a former member of Nepal’s constituent legislature who served as Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’, Oli’s home minister from 2018 to 21,’s security adviser, was detained on May 2. The leader of the Nepali Congress, Balkrishna Khand, was detained on May 10.
As a result of his involvement in the scheme, Prateek Thapa, the son of Badal, is reportedly on the “wanted” list.
Despite various incidents involving corruption during the previous 15 years of Loktantra, Parliament has rarely discussed corruption or attempted to hold the government responsible. The refugee swindle, however, was perceived as undermining Nepal’s sovereignty in and of itself, and demonstrators were labelled traitors.
Amaresh Kumar Singh, the independent lawmaker who removed his shirt in front of the House of Representatives, had earlier claimed that “Pampha Devis”—a reference to a claim made thirty years prior that the nation’s then-Queen Aishwarya had hidden money in Swiss banks under the fictitious name of “Pampha Devi”—were running the country.
For the first time, the protests against the refugee scam have called into question the impunity that leaders of the government and opposition have hitherto had in the House. Politicians and officials are among those accused of being traffickers, and the story has become into an emotionally charged nationalist issue as a result.
A licence to establish a private stock market in the nation was placed on hold on May 11 by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” due to pressure and claims that the procedure may not have been completely transparent. Despite maintaining a tough exterior in the face of the trafficking scandal, Prachanda is likely aware that a rupture in the political consensus of “impunity to all” could ultimately result in the opening of the floodgates, with his own name appearing in a number of suspected schemes. The investigation into the refugee scam may lead to the start of numerous more inquiries, endangering the political careers of prominent figures in all major parties.