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How the world’s happiest people can also be refugees

Bhutanese refugees in Beldangi I camp in Nepal. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bhutan, a small kingdom in Central Asia, claims it has the world’s happiest people. In fact its king has gone so far as to define a Gross National Happiness Index, by which he ranks his people as one of the highest.

Yet: HIAS says that in 2018 the top six countries of origin for refugees coming to the US were: the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Myanmar (Burma), Ukraine, Bhutan and Eritrea.

Most of those aren’t surprising: Congo has been wracked by such a severe ongoing civil war that it now ranks among the 10 deadliest conflicts in world history. Myanmar is pursuing a policy of genocide against the Rohingya people. Eritrea’s forced lifelong military conscription has made its male population flee. Apparently ongoing civil and political instability has made Ukraine a difficult place for people to survive.

But hang on: Bhutan? The nation of the world’s happiest people?

Remember, to apply for refugee status one’s individual life must be in mortal danger. Why would the world’s happiest people be fleeing their country in droves?

A little investigation showed that there was a significant Bhutanese refugee population in the Lhotshampa people, a Nepali-speaking minority who were the target of attempted ethnic cleansing. But this was back in the last century. So why in 2018 were they among the largest groups seeking entry into the US?

Turns out, this group of people have remained stateless for decades. It reminded us of the Palestinians. Just as their leadership, as well as leaders of certain Arab countries like Lebanon, refuse to allow Palestinian refugees — and their refugees’ descendants — to permanently resettle in a new country, the government of Nepal forbade the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees. Likely — again, not dissimilar to the situation with the Palestinians — having this permanent refugee population served that government’s purpose.

Is Bhutan’s GNHI then simply a government propaganda tool? Bhutan has been pursuing a policy of ‘One Nation, One People,’ hence the attempted ethnic cleansing of a minority group. That raises the question of whether homogeneity increases happiness. But it also makes one wonder about the science. The Bhutanese government claims it conducts a census of its population asking key questions to get a person’s psychological state. But were the persecuted minority groups asked about their happiness levels? Or have they been so successfully ethnically cleansed that they’re no longer even in the population?

But it also makes us realize that data is not always self-explanatory, and often misleading. If HIAS says that Bhutan is one of the top countries of origin of refugees one will likely conclude that the refugees in question come from Bhutan — not from Nepal, and not of Nepali ethnic origin.

Mark Twain’s quip — some may say truism — comes to mine: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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