<%-- Page Title--%> Human Rights <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 127 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 17, 2003

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Tibetan Refugees In Nepal

Dr Riffat Hossain Lucy

During my recent visit to Nepal, the South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) took a bold initiative and arranged a visit to Pokhara, situated at 200 kilometre west of Kathmandu. Pokhara means "land of lakes". It is a beautiful hilly area situated at an altitude of 827 metres from the sea and is about eight hours drive from Kathmandu. Pokhara records the highest rainfall in Nepal and has several beautiful lakes offering an eye-catching view of Himalayan peaks.

The journey through the spiral roads running through the very high hills with evidence of land-slides towards Pokhara was very exciting. There was a wonderful reception from the refugees. Twenty-nine participants from eight countries working for human rights were in the list to visit the old Tashi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee camp. Most of the Tibetan refugees were lucky enough to have escaped across the borders into Nepal to live in settlements in Kathmandu' Budhanath district and the remainder in Pokhara, Baglung, Mustang, Taplejung, Manang, Rasuwa, Solukhumbu and Lalitpur.

Virtually, Nepal is now the home of 18,000 officially registered Tibetan refugees (unofficially more than 20,000), who are known to have fled to Nepal in 1959, the year when Tibet's spiritual leader Dalai Lama fled to Dharmasala, India. Most of them are actually children and grandchildren of the refugees. In1960 the Nepalese government arranged to provide Tibetan refugees with land. They established four temporary settlements. Dhialsa in Solu Khumba Mountain, Dhorpatan in western Nepal, Jawalakhel in Kathmandu and Tashi Palkhiel in Pokhara. As the Tibetans have no right to buy property, Nepal Red Cross (NRC) purchased the land with the donations from UNHCR.

There are four Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara and the one visited by us, Tashi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Camp was established in 1962 in cooperation with the Swiss development Corporation and the government of Nepal. There are about 1000 refugees in the camp with facilities of a school, old age home and a beautiful monastery. The camp in Pokhara looks like a small Tibet.

The refugee houses were small, too closely constructed by less stable materials. Food and water supply was adequate but the source was not safe for drinking. Medical care was given by only a small dispensary run mainly by a female nurse of Tibetan origin, still the Tibetan preferred not to visit the dispensary but to depend on their traditional treatment. Dysentery, diarrhoea, skin infection was not common. There is no formal training for the women who are mainly engaged in the domestic activities, child care and sales women.

Refugees are not allowed to dabble in political activities, or do business outside of their area, though some are working outside, mainly in Kathmandu having valid ID card issued before 1989. The rest who came after that time cannot assimilate and find secure employment without formal legal standing in Nepal. Tibetan refugees have no right to own property or business, cannot own houses, vehicles, land and other property in Nepal. Legal and social discrimination severely curtail their ability to secure employment. They are not permitted to acquire residential and other legal documents. The displaced Tibetan nationals have experienc harassment, extortion and deportation when they are without valid evidence. Tibetan refugees cannot travel to certain restricted regions of Nepal, and it is difficult to get travel documents for crossing international borders.

In recent years, refugees have come at a rate averaging eight person per day. The new arrivals are fed and housed at a transit camp in Kathmandu run by the administration of Dalai Lama. After their arrival, the refugees are kept in undisclosed transit camps. Many refugees spoke to the participants regarding the refugee status and valid identification. According to UNHCR's global guidelines, any refugee claimant may appeal a negative decision concerning refugee status.

“We don't feel like humans here and my younger brother who is born in the camp is even in a worst situation as he has no rights at all,” said Tahshi, a young Tibetan teenager in the camp.

To get to Nepal the refugees have to pass through the snow-covered Himalayas, the world's highest mountain range. Many among the fleeing peoples fall prey to the cold and freeze to death. Dekhi Lama, a young Tibetan refugee remembers a 7-year old girl who died of hypothermia and difficulty of breathing at high altitudes and was buried in the snow. This is one such example. Once settled in Nepal, some Tibetan refugees decide to stay while others choose to move on to India and other parts of the world.

Though the UNHCR must inform the claimant why someone's application has been rejected, the claimants were not given any reasons for why their applications were refused. Nearly 300 newly arrived Tibetan refugees were sent back. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities by the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) in 1995, though the Foreign Minister Prakash Chandra Lohani assured that the Tibetan refugees need fear such consequences anymore.

Eight of the Tibetans, aged 14 to 18 had been forcibly removed from Honuman Dhoka jail by the Nepalese and Chinese police and officials at 7:30 am on May 31, 2003. This deportation was implemented despite strong international lobbying in support of the Tibetans over few days and high level interest. Sometimes Nepalese security guards demand bribes from the refugees caught at the border, threatening to hand them over to Chinese authorities. Sometimes the refugees were given prison sentences ranging from seven to ten months as they were not able to pay the fines. Invariably the refugees in the prison are denied access to doctors, even if they are sent by the Nepalese.

In 2000, Nepalese authorities and UNHCR agreed to change the existing one-page travel document for the Tibetan refugees to a passport style document that will be accepted by most countries. The new passport system was about to be implemented beginning in January 2001. On May 2003, the Government of Nepal turned 18 Tibetan asylum seekers including minors, over to the Chinese representatives to be forcibly repatriated to China.

The actions taken against the Tibetan refugees not only violates international norms and practices regarding the humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, but also puts a question mark on Nepal's long standing reputation as a peace loving country with tolerance and hospitality.

The writer is a public health specialist and a human rights activist.




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