Located between China and India, Bhutan is one of the most isolated and least developed countries in the world. In the early 1990s, approximately 80,000 Bhutanese nationals, almost one-sixth of the country’s population, were expelled from their country by their government for being ethnic Nepalis. Nepal’s government refused to allow the refugees to integrate into the community, and today there are more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal in bamboo huts without electricity or running water, and with little access to basic education and healthcare. The Bhutanese government has not fulfilled its promise to let these refugees return to Bhutan.
Thirty-four-year-old Crystal Kaplan was still in high school when the Bhutanese refugee crisis began, but in 2007, she helped design and execute a plan that is providing an opportunity for these refugees to resettle in a third country and start a new life.
As a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy Kathmandu, Crystal Kaplan began to research the Bhutanese refugee population in 2003. She traveled to the camps and interviewed the families living there. She began to understand the strife that these individuals faced on a daily basis. Food was in short supply. There was a rise in teenage pregnancy and violence. School-age children were unable to complete their homework after dark due to the lack of electricity. She also recognized the potential danger posed by allowing these refugees to languish in camps indefinitely. With no hope for the future, young refugees in the camps were ripe for Maoist or other terrorist group recruitment.
Kaplan did her best to advance short-term, immediate relief for camp residents. She advocated for continued U.S. funding for food, healthcare and other basic humanitarian relief. She monitored the delivery of humanitarian assistance funded by the U.S. Department of State. She also secured additional funds for high school scholarships for Bhutanese refugees who otherwise would not be able to go to school. Kaplan demonstrated her ability to find innovative solutions by establishing a public-private partnership between the Rotary Clubs of her hometown in San Clemente, California, and Kathmandu to provide funding for pedal-powered generators to provide light to the individual huts.
But more important than this short-term relief, after Kaplan took up the position of Refugee Coordinator and Deputy Political Chief in 2006, she worked to break the long-standing impasse between Bhutan and Nepal on the future of the refugees. Through her interviews, she dispelled the notion that the refugees only wanted to resettle in Bhutan and instead found they were also open to resettlement abroad.
She worked with a coalition of six other governments to agree on a common policy and intensely lobby the government of Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in other countries. Thanks in part to strong relationships she had built, the government of Nepal – though initially reluctant – finally agreed. Refugees are being resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. On February 27, 2008, the first Bhutanese refugee arrived in the United States, and more than 200 followed in the next two months alone. This accomplishment was so extraordinary that the United Nations is working to adapt this multilateral model to resolve other protracted refugee situations around the world.
Due to her exemplary work with the Bhutanese refugees, Kaplan is now known as one of the world’s leading experts on refugee relief issues and solutions. She was appointed the U.S. Department of State Refugee Coordinator for Jerusalem in recognition of the important role humanitarian assistance to 4.5 million Palestinian refugees in the region will play in supporting long-term prospects for peace.
Crystal Kaplan’s work has yielded practical benefits for our country. She has helped to save U.S. tax dollars that will no longer be needed to maintain the Bhutanese refugee camps. She also helped avert the radicalization of this group which was vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Her greatest achievement, however, has been giving a voice to the voiceless and helping thousands of people restore their lives and reclaim their futures.