Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April 2014, 13:11 GMT

Nepal: Information on Tibetans in Nepal

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 9 June 2003
Citation / Document Symbol NPL03001.ZNY
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Nepal: Information on Tibetans in Nepal, 9 June 2003, NPL03001.ZNY, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3f51fbfb4.html [accessed 20 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Query:

Provide background information on Tibetans in Nepal. Are new Tibetan arrivals provided with documents? Provide information on Tibetan settlements in Nepal, including how they are run, their names and locations, and how Tibetans are processed when they arrive in settlements.

Response:

Information provided in this Query Response expands on and updates information provided in Response NPL02001.RIC entitled "Nepal: Treatment of Tibetans." For more information on the status of Tibetans residing in or transiting Nepal, see TIBET'S STATELESS NATIONALS: TIBETAN REFUGEES IN NEPAL, published in June 2002 as a result of a fact-finding mission to Nepal by the California-based Tibet Justice Center. This in-depth report is available at http://www.tibetjustice.org/reports/.

BACKGROUND

Nepal is home to an estimated 20,000 or more Tibetans, many of whom arrived in 1959-60 around the time that the Dalai Lama fled there from Tibet. For more than a decade, the Government of Nepal has barred Tibetans who are newcomers from remaining in the country (U.S. DOS 4 Mar 2002).

Tibetans currently arriving in Nepal are only allowed to transit through the Himalayan country on their way to India or another state willing to take them (USCRb 2002). Several Tibetans are serving lengthy jail terms in Nepal for living in the country illegally or for traveling back to Tibet through Nepal without proper documents (TIN 2 Jul 2002).

After providing a safe haven for Tibetans for three decades, the Nepalese Government in late 1989 stopped registering new arrivals and barred them from remaining in the country (USCRb 2002). The Government, however, allowed the thousands of Tibetan refugees already in the country to remain in Nepal. Moreover, it adopted an informal policy in 1990 of allowing Tibetans to transit through Nepal on their way to third countries, generally India (TIN 2 Jul 2002).

Nearly 2,000 Tibetans passed through Nepal in 2002, according to the Nepal office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some 1,200 of them registered with the UN, while 700 to 800 made their way to India on their own. The Tibetan agencies in Dharamsala, India that act as a government-in-exile believe that the figure was higher, with upwards of 3,400 Tibetans arriving from Nepal in 2002 (Representative 17 Mar 2003). Under either figure, the number of arrivals in 2002 was an increase over the 1,381 Tibetans who reached India via Nepal in 2001 (USCRa 2002). For more information on Tibetans in India, see IND03002.ZNY, INDIA: INFORMATION ON TIBETAN REFUGEES AND SETTLEMENTS, 30 May 2003.

Of the Tibetans who live in Nepal, at least 12,000 reside in Kathmandu's Boudhanath district. The rest live in Tibetan settlements set up mainly in the 1960s and 1970s in Pokhara and other towns (USCRb 2002). The true number of Tibetans in Nepal is not known. Some estimates suggest that 30,000 Tibetans live in Kathmandu alone (Pradhan 17 May 2001).

"GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT"

According to the Tibet Justice Center [the California-based NGO that recently conducted a fact-finding mission to Nepal to investigate conditions for Tibetans in that country], an informal "gentlemen's agreement" among the Government of Nepal, the UNHCR, and the Government-of-Tibet-in-exile protects Tibetans passing through Nepal to India (TJC 22 Jan 2003). Since about 1990, the agreement has provided that "Tibetans apprehended by the police within Nepal's borders should be detained and turned over to the [Nepalese] Department of Immigration who in turn will contact UNHCR. Tibetans generally wait at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu until authorized to travel on to Tibetan refugee communities in India" (TJC 22 Jan 2003). The Tibet Justice Center reports, however, that "in recent years the Nepalese government has been detaining, fining, and imprisoning Tibetan refugees apprehended within Nepal's borders" (TJC 22 Jan 2003).

On 15 April 2003, 18 Tibetans, including eight minors, were detained in Nepal on their way to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center in Kathmandu. The Tibetans had journeyed on foot over the Himalayas from Tibet (TJC 29 May 2003). The group of 18 were forcibly repatriated to China on 31 May 2003 (ICT 2 Jun 2003).

The International Campaign for Tibet quoted the U.S. Department of State in a 2 June 2003 press release:

"Saturday morning [31 May] in Kathmandu the government of Nepal turned over to representatives of the People's Republic of China 18 Tibetan refugees, including minors. We are outraged by this development. Our embassy has demarched the Nepalese government at the highest levels and more broadly this is a long-standing issue that is often raised in Kathmandu. Senior U.S. government officials met recently with People's Republic of China and Nepalese officials in Washington and made it well known our feelings on this issue. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has called the return of the 18 Tibetans to China without a status determination to be a clear violation of international law. We condemn the behavior of Chinese diplomats in Nepal and we call on the government to Nepal to return to the previous practice of allowing Tibetans to seek protection in Nepal [under the ‘Gentlemen's Agreement'] for onward resettlement to India" (ICT 2 Jun 2003).

HOW ARE TIBETANS PROCESSED WHEN THEY ARRIVE AT TIBETAN SETTLEMENTS IN NEPAL? HOW LONG CAN THEY REMAIN IN THE SETTLEMENTS?

Because of the Nepalese Government's policy of prohibiting newly-arrived Tibetans from remaining in the country, the Tibetan settlements in Nepal are formally closed to newcomers, according to the executive director of Tibet Information Network (TIN) in London (Executive Director 17 Mar 2003). Nevertheless, some Tibetans who are in the kingdom illegally do reside in the settlements or elsewhere in Nepal, though most prefer to go to India rather than settle illegally in Nepal (Executive Director 17 Mar 2003).

Under the 1990 "Gentlemen's Agreement," Tibetans picked up by police while transiting through Nepal are supposed to be turned over to the Nepalese Department of Immigration, which in turn contacts UNHCR. In practice, the UNHCR generally intervenes after learning second-hand about Tibetans who are caught, according to the vice-president of the Tibet Justice Center (19 Mar 2003). After being contacted by the UNHCR, the police typically hand over the Tibetans to UNHCR officials, who in turn bring them to the Tibetan Reception Center in Kathmandu (Vice President 19 Mar 2003).

The UNHCR does not make formal refugee status determinations of Tibetans passing through the Reception Center, though it conducts brief interviews with each to determine if they have a prima facie credible case for being considered a refugee. The interviews consist of five or six basic questions, including name, age, and reason for leaving Tibet. In the overwhelming majority of cases, UNHCR officials are satisfied that the Tibetan being interviewed is a "person of concern," which clears the way for Nepal's Department of Immigration to give the go-ahead for onward travel to India (Vice President 19 Mar 2003). "The ‘of concern' interview is not a prima facie refugee-status determination, except to the extent that it screens out persons who are not, in fact, Tibetan. It's very pro forma and (deliberately) vague" (Vice President 19 Mar 2003).

Nepalese authorities want Tibetans who are processed by the UNHCR to be out of the country within two weeks. In practice, most such Tibetans remain in Nepal only until there are enough of them to fill one of the buses that are used to transport them to the Dalai Lama's home-in-exile at Dharamsala, India. This wait can take anywhere from one week to several months. The departing Tibetans receive a group exit permit from the [Nepalese] Department of Immigration that is taken from them when they cross the border with India. This means that most Tibetans enter India without any valid papers (Vice President 19 Mar 2003).

Nepal has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and considers all asylum seekers— with the exception of the pre-1989 Tibetan population and certain Bhutanese— to be illegal immigrants. Therefore, even Tibetans whom the UNHCR believes have a credible case for being considered refugees have no legal status or rights in Nepal (USCRb 2002).

TIBETANS PROVIDED WITH FEW DOCUMENTS

The majority of Tibetans entering Nepal lack Nepalese visas or any official travel documents, according to TIN (15 Feb 2002). Newly-arrived Tibetans are eligible to receive a special card issued by the UNHCR that lists their personal details and states that "the holder of this card is a person of concern to UNHCR" (TIN 2 Jul 2002). The card does not bear the UNHCR's logo or contain the refugee agency's contact information (TIN 2 Jul 2002).

In practice, these cards often are not available, and Tibetan arrivals generally do not know to ask for them, according to the executive director of TIN (Executive Director 17 Mar 2003). In any case, Nepalese authorities generally do not recognize the cards for identification purposes. The executive director of TIN stated that this means the cards can lead to a false sense of security, in the sense that Tibetan newcomers without proper papers are still subject to arrest even if they have UNHCR cards (Executive director 17 Mar 2003).

More than a dozen Tibetans have been jailed in Nepal in recent years after being caught without proper travel or residence documents and being unable to pay stiff fines, according to TIN (15 Feb 2002). Some were living in Nepal and were considered illegal immigrants because they were not part of the pre-1989 refugee population. Others were caught trying to make their way back to Tibet from India. Though in transit, they were not covered under the 1990 policy, which applies only to Tibetans headed to India (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

In May 2002, two Tibetans were arrested for living in Nepal for a year without valid residence documents. They were fined $2,282 each, calculated to reflect the time they had spent in the country. Another Tibetan, arrested in January of that year, was released after his $174 fine was paid by the Kathmandu representatives of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader (TIN 2 Jul 2002).

Similarly, two Tibetan monks were arrested in Kathmandu in August 2001 for failing to have proper residence papers. They were later sentenced to 10-year jail terms because they were unable to pay fines totaling $2,733 each. In 2000, a Tibetan monk living in Nepal's remote Solokhumbu region was arrested for not possessing valid documents. He too received a 10-year prison sentence after being unable to pay his fine (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

Unlike Tibetans living illegally in Nepal, those trying to return to Tibet from India until recently were not harassed, even though the 1990 free-passage policy applies only to Tibetans travelling to India. In late 2000, however, Nepalese authorities arrested 19 Tibetans caught crossing the border from India into Nepal without valid travel papers. The 19 spent six months in jail before benefactors paid their fines to free them (TIN 2 Jul 2002; 15 Feb 2002).

More recently, eight Tibetans were arrested at a checkpoint at the edge of the Kathmandu Valley during an apparent attempt to travel back to Tibet from India via Nepal. They received 10-year jail terms after failing to pay fines totaling $1,624 each (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

Even for Tibetans who seemingly are trying to reach India, the 1990 policy may not always provide protection. Three Tibetans were sentenced by a Nepalese court to three years in jail in January 2003 for entering the kingdom without valid travel documents, Agence France-Presse reported, quoting a Tibetan official (AFP 22 Jan 2003). The three were on their way to India and were jailed after failing to pay fines of $320 each for traveling without documents and visa fees of $52 apiece, according to the official, Wangchuk Tsering, the top local representative of the Dalai Lama (AFP 22 Jan 2003).

The U.S. Department of State reports in its 2001 annual report on human rights in Nepal [published in 2002] that harassment by Nepalese customs and police officers of Tibetan asylum seekers entering Nepal from China has lessened since 1999, but extortion of money from Tibetans in exchange for passage from China still occurs. The State Department also states that during 2001 there were confirmed reports of forced repatriation to China of seven Tibetan asylum seekers. "Since the flight of the Karmapa Lama from Tibet in January 2000, the Government has disallowed UNHCR access to the Nepal-China border to monitor the treatment of Tibetan refugees" (U.S. DOS 4 Mar 2002).

Meanwhile, Tibetans who arrived in Nepal before the Government tightened its policies in 1989 enjoy a legal though precarious status. The Nepalese Government has never finished the process of issuing residence cards to all of the pre-1989 refugees, and many lack such documents, according to a liaison officer at the Dalai Lama's representative office in New York, the Office of Tibet (Liaison Officer 19 Mar 2003). This means that some Tibetans in the pre-1989 population have official Nepalese residence cards, while others do not, the liaison officer said (Liaison Officer 19 Mar 2003).

According to the U.S. Department of State, when the Government of Nepal suspended issuance of identification cards to Tibetan refugees in the camps, "approximately 4,000 refugees outside the camps were still without an identification document" (IRB-RD 13 Sep 1999). The Department of State also reported that "[s]ome of those without documents have illicitly purchased Nepalese identification cards and passports from document vendors and corrupt government officials...[while] a few Tibetans legitimately hold Nepalese passports" (IRB-RD 13 Sep 1999).

Separately, the Nepalese Government in January 2001 began issuing new passport-style documents to legal Tibetan refugees seeking to travel abroad. The new documents replaced a one-page travel document previously issued to registered Tibetan refugees (USCRb 2002).

WHO IS IN CHARGE OF TIBETAN SETTLEMENTS IN NEPAL? WHAT IS THE SETTLEMENT PERSONNEL STRUCTURE?

Each Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal is headed by a settlement officer appointed by the Tibetan administration in Dharamsala. The number two official in each settlement is a camp leader elected by the refugees (Liaison Officer 19 Mar 2003).

While the Government of Nepal has ultimate authority over the settlements and takes charge in any criminal matters, in practice the Tibetan administrators work to maintain good relations with local communities and generally are given a free hand to run the day-to-day affairs of the settlements (Liaison Officer 19 Mar 2003).

HOW DO TIBETANS SURVIVE IF THEY DO NOT LIVE IN A SETTLEMENT?

A 2003 Agence France-Presse article noted that Tibetans in the kingdom "have been largely prosperous and run many hotels, restaurants and handicraft stores in Kathmandu" (AFP 22 Jan 2003).

The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board, Research Directorate quotes the U.S. Department of State in reporting:

"Many [of the Tibetans who] went to Nepal with the Dalai Lama in 1959-60...are well-integrated into local communities [in Nepal]. About one-third remain in or near camps in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Those living independently live mainly in the Kathmandu area... Tibetans in Nepal are afforded many of the same rights enjoyed by Nepalese citizens. They live and travel freely throughout the Kingdom. They own land and property, maintain bank accounts, and conduct business. They participate openly in religious and cultural activities. They can obtain an education, often attending Tibetan schools which teach Tibetan language and culture. Many young people learn English well, and Tibetan students pass the school leaving [sic] certificate exam (tenth grade equivalent) at a higher rate than Nepalese students do. However, Tibetans are prohibited from political action and they are not permitted to vote in Nepal's elections... Despite their long term presence in Nepal, many express anxiety that the [government of Nepal] could expel them at any time" (IRB-RD 13 Sep 1999).

NAMES AND LOCATIONS OF TIBETAN SETTLEMENTS IN NEPAL

The website of the Home Department of the Tibetan administration in Dharamsala lists what it says are 11 Tibetan settlements in Nepal (GOTa):

--Delekling Tibetan Settlement (Salleri, Solukhumbu Region)

--Dorpatan/Norzinling Tibetan Settlement (Dorpatan, Baglung District)

--Jampaling Tibetan Settlement (Pokhara)

--Namgyaling Tibetan Settlement (Chairok, Mustang Region)

--Paljorling Tibetan Handicraft Center (Pokhara)

--Samdupling Tibetan Handicraft Center (Jawalakhel, Kathmandu)

--Swayambu Handicraft Center (Kathmandu)

--Tashiling Tibetan Settlement (Pokhara)

--Tashi Palkhel Tibetan Settlement (Pokhara)

--Tibetan Settlement (Dunche)

--Tibetan Settlement (Walung , Taplizong)

A phone directory of the Tibetan administration's offices in India, Nepal, and Bhutan also lists a Tashi Gang settlement in Pokhara that is not on the Home Department's list (GOTb). In 1998, the U.S. Department of State reported that there were 13 Tibetan settlements in Nepal at that time (IRB-RD 13 Sep 1999).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References:

Agence France-Presse (AFP). "Young Tibetan Refugees Imprisoned in Nepal" (22 Jan 2003) - WESTLAW.

Executive Director. Tibet Information Network (TIN). Telephone interview (London: 17 Mar 2003).

Government of Tibet in Exile (GOTa). Department of Home, Central Tibetan Administration of H.H. The Dalai Lama, Dharamsala. http://www.tibet.com/Govt/home.html [accessed 18 Mar 2003]

Government of Tibet in Exile (GOTb). "Tibetan Telephone Directory - India, Nepal and Bhutan" http://www.tibet.com/Address/tibetan-in-exile-1.html [accessed 14 Mar 2003]

Immigration and Refugee Board, Research Directorate (IRB-RD). CHINA/NEPAL: INFORMATION FROM THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE REGARDING TIBETANS IN NEPAL (Ottawa: 13 Sep 1999), http://www.irb.gc.ca/cgi-bin/foliocgi.exe/refinfo_e/ [Accessed 25 Mar 2003]

International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). "U.S. Government ‘Outraged' by Forced Deportation of Tibetans; Protesters Rally Outside Nepal Embassy, Washington D.C." (2 Jun 2003), http://www.savetibet.org/News/News.cfm?ID=1778&c=7

Liaison Officer. Office of Tibet, New York. Telephone interview (New York: 19 Mar 2003).

Pradhan, Suman. Inter-Press Service. "Absence of Tibetan Protests Brings Relief" (17 May 2001) - WESTLAW.

Representative. U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR). Telephone interview (Washington, DC: 17 Mar 2003).

Tibet Information Network (TIN). "Tibetan Prisoners in Nepal Seek Royal Pardon," News Update (15 Feb 2002), http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/2002/1502.htm [Accessed 14 Mar 2003]

Tibet Information Network (TIN). "Two More Tibetans Arrested in Kathmandu," News Update (2 Jul 2002), http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/2002/0207.htm [Accessed 18 Mar 2003]

Tibet Justice Center (TJC). "Nepalese Government Bows to Chinese Pressure: Tibetan Refugees in Nepal Face Imminent Deportation to Tibet," Press Release (29 May 2003), http://www.tibetjustice.org/press/03.05.29-nepal.html [Accessed 9 Jun 2003]

Tibet Justice Center (TJC). "Tibetan Arrests in Nepal on the Rise—‘Gentleman's Agreement' Breaking Down," Press Release (22 Jan 2003), http://www.tibetjustice.org/press/03.01.22-nepal.html [Accessed 18 Mar 2003]

Tibet Justice Center (TJC). TIBET'S STATELESS NATIONALS: TIBETAN REFUGEES IN NEPAL (2002), http://www.tibetjustice.org/reports/ [Accessed 26 March 2003]

U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCRa). "India," WORLD REFUGEE SURVEY 2002 (2002), http://www.uscr.org/world/countryrpt/scasia/2002/india.cfm [Accessed 14 Mar 2003]

U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCRb). "Nepal," WORLD REFUGEE SURVEY 2002 (2002), http://www.uscr.org/world/countryrpt/scasia/nepal.htm [Accessed 14 Mar 2003]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2001. "Nepal" (4 Mar 2002), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/sa/8234.htm [Accessed 26 Mar 2003]

Vice President. Tibet Justice Center. Telephone interview (New York: 19 Mar 2003).

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