Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

Nepal: Information on treatment of Tibetans

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 22 March 2002
Citation / Document Symbol NPL02001.RIC
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Nepal: Information on treatment of Tibetans, 22 March 2002, NPL02001.RIC, available at: [accessed 17 February 2018]
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.


Please provide information on the treatment of Tibetans in Nepal.



Tibetans in Nepal lack refugee status and lead precarious lives. Most face little harassment in their day-to-day affairs, but Nepalese authorities have jailed some Tibetans living in Nepal and repatriated others caught fleeing China. Analysts say that Tibetans who arrived in Nepal in the past few years and those trying to return to China after visiting India appear to be most at risk of arrest, as opposed to those Tibetans who have resided in Nepal for 20 years or more. The analysts note, however, that it is not clear why police harass some Tibetans but not others who fit these high-risk profiles.

Pressures on Tibetans in Nepal increased after Kathmandu tightened border controls and increased internal security checkpoints. These measures came after the Nepalese government declared a state of emergency in November 2001 in response to the Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi. Maoist rebels reportedly have extorted money from and otherwise harassed some Tibetan shop owners in Kathmandu.


As of mid-March 2002, Nepalese jails held 11 Tibetans, who are serving ten-year prison terms for lacking proper travel or residency documents, according to the London-based Tibet Information Network (TIN). Nineteen other Tibetans spent four months in jail after being arrested by Nepalese authorities at the Indian border in late 2000 as they tried to make their way back to China, TIN reported, but they were released after benefactors paid their fines (15 Feb 2002).

Those arrested heading back to China were among the unknown number of Tibetans who travel from China to India each year to study, see family, or hear teachings by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. These Tibetans returning to Tibet, as well as those who have lived in Nepal for only a few years, face the greatest risks of arrest, according to the president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) (ICT 21 Mar 2002).

Observers say, however, that beyond identifying high-risk categories of Tibetans it is hard to discern patterns in the arrests. "When you ask, 'Why?' you don't find any good answers," the director of the Tibet Information Network (TIN) said in a telephone interview from London (TIN 21 Mar 2002). Most Tibetans avoid being arrested by establishing good relationships with local police, getting official Nepalese papers, or simply being lucky, the director said (TIN 21 Mar 2002). Tibetans with papers generally have "no troubles," the director added, except if police doubt that the papers are legitimate (TIN 21 Mar 2002).

The TIN director said that, in the end, "[t]here is room for police or judges to decide who to punish or not to punish" (TIN 21 Mar 2002). He added that there is little evidence of Tibetans being jailed by Nepalese authorities for expressing anti-China views (TIN 21 Mar 2002).

In contrast to newer arrivals, some Tibetans have lived in Nepal for 20 or more years, according to the president of ICT (ICT 21 Mar 2002). Many have prospered by owning carpet factories or other businesses. Their money most likely has helped them avoid being arrested or harassed by officials (ICT 21 Mar 2002).

Sources in Kathmandu, meanwhile, say that Nepalese authorities recently have stepped up random checks of Tibetans for documents, particularly in the Boudhanath area of the capital, according to TIN (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

The increased checks and the arrests in the past two years appear to be related to Nepal's acute security problems. Nepalese officials tightened border controls in the wake of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi in late 1999. Previously, citizens of Nepal and India could freely cross the border between the two countries under the 1950 Indo-Nepalese Border Treaty Act. TIN noted that the January 2000 escape to India of one of Tibetan Buddhism's top spiritual figures, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, the seventeenth Karmapa, may have led China to pressure Nepal to increase border surveillance (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

According to TIN, the state of emergency declared by the Government of Nepal in November 2001 in response to the Maoist insurgency no doubt is also responsible for the stricter border controls. A Western traveler who entered Nepal from China in late December 2001 reported an increase in security checkpoints in the Himalayan kingdom since the state of emergency took effect on November 26 (TIN 2 Jan 2002).

TIN reports that the more than two dozen Tibetans jailed by Nepalese courts in the past two years were convicted on immigration charges for failing to possess proper residence documents. Of the 11 Tibetans in prison as of March 2002, two are monks who were arrested on 20 August 2001, in a Kathmandu restaurant. Security forces arrested eight more Tibetans two days later at the Thankot checkpoint on the cusp of the Kathmandu Valley as they tried to return to China after visiting India. The eleventh Tibetan inmate is a monk who had been living in Nepal before being arrested in June 2000 in the remote Solukhumbu region in the northeastern part of the country (TIN 15 Feb 2002).

According to TIN, the Tibetans were jailed because they were unable to pay steep fines, which included visa fees, late visa fees, and further penalties. The two monks were fined $2,733 each, while the eight Tibetans arrested at the checkpoint were fined $1,624 each (TIN 15 Feb 2002). It is not clear how much the monk arrested in Solukhumbu was fined.

The president of ICT noted that the Tibetan community could afford to pay the fines. The community fears, however, that doing so will encourage Nepalese officials to jail more Tibetans or to raise the fines in order to extract more money (ICT 21 Mar 2002).

According to TIN's director, most of the relatively few Tibetans who have been handed over to Chinese border officials by Nepalese police were trying to enter Nepal and appeared not to have made it much further than the border before being caught. Some Tibetans, however, have been returned to China even after they reached Kathmandu. Others, meanwhile, have bribed police to get as far as India (TIN 21 Mar 2002).

In what appeared to be a surge in the number of repatriations, Nepalese police handed over to Chinese border guards at least 15 Tibetans between November 25 and December 24, 2001, according to TIN. The group said that it learned of the deportations only because there were witnesses and that the actual number of deportations is likely to be higher. Sources told TIN that Chinese authorities in some cases paid Nepalese officials to hand over detainees (TIN 24 Dec 2001). The U.S. State Department reported a lower number of cases, saying that it knew of seven Tibetan asylum seekers forcibly repatriated by Nepalese officials in 2001 (U.S. DOS Mar 2002).

Tibetans in Nepal face considerable risks in part because the Government of Nepal has long stopped granting them refugee status, apparently in an effort to foster good relations with China. The kingdom also prevents the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has an office in Kathmandu, from classifying Tibetans as refugees. Instead, the UNHCR may only classify Tibetans in Nepal as "People of Concern" (ICT 21 Mar 2002).

The Government of Nepal stopped granting refugee status to Tibetans in December 1989. It agreed to a UNHCR request that Tibetans be allowed to transit Nepal to a third country, namely India. As a result, Nepal's official policy is for police to bring asylum seekers to immigration authorities in Kathmandu. The Tibetans may stay at a UNHCR reception center in the capital before going on to India (TIN 24 Dec 2001). According to U.S. Committee for Refugees, in 2000, the UNHCR facilitated travel to India for 2,319 of 2,637 Tibetan refugees who entered Nepal from China (USCR 2001). At the time of this report, figures for 2001 were unavailable.

Although the government of Nepal and the UNHCR have agreed on procedures for handling Tibetans who are transiting Nepal on their way to India from China, there are no agreed-upon procedures for dealing with Tibetans returning to China from India (TIN 15 Feb 2002). In any case, TIN reports that Nepalese police often are unaware of or simply ignore procedures for dealing with Tibetans (TIN 24 Dec 2001).

Nepal's immigration law, meanwhile, does not make provisions for refugees. Foreigners entering the kingdom are considered illegal immigrants if they do not have valid visas (TIN 15 Feb 2002). This makes Tibetans who lack papers and who are not under UNHCR auspices relatively easy targets for police (ICT 21 Mar 2002).

In practice, most Tibetans in Nepal lack valid Nepalese documents, Indian refugee passports, or Chinese passports, which often are difficult for Tibetans to obtain. Tibetans born in Nepal, however, can get certain Nepalese documents even if they choose not to become Nepalese citizens, according to the ICT president (ICT 21 Mar 2002). For example, some Tibetans have Nepalese residence permits (Office of Tibet 21 Mar 2002).

The residence permits, however, are for identification purposes only and confer few real privileges, according to a representative of the Office of Tibet in New York, a de facto diplomatic office of the Dalai Lama. "It is just a piece of paper," the representative said in a telephone interview. The representative stated that some Tibetans who have Nepalese documents got them illegally by bribing officials. Tibetans who illegally obtain Nepalese citizenship often use Sherpa names on their papers, the representative added (Office of Tibet 21 Mar 2002). The Sherpas are a people of Tibetan origin who live mainly in the Everest region of northeastern Nepal (FAO 1967).

Tibetans in Nepal recently have faced threats from another quarter– the Maoist guerrillas whose insurgency since 1996 has killed some 2,000 rebels, soldiers, police, and civilians. Maoists have threatened and extorted money from some Tibetan shop owners in Kathmandu and bombed at least one Tibetan shop in the capital (Office of Tibet 21 Mar 2002).

Tibetans in Nepal have also been unable recently to publicly observe major political and religious holidays. Tibetans were not allowed to publicly commemorate Tibetan National Day in March 2002 and have been barred from publicly displaying photographs of the Dalai Lama for the past two or three years, according to TIN's director. In the past, police "would have closed their eyes" to such public displays, the director said, adding that Nepalese officials have also forbidden Tibetans from publicly celebrating some religious festivals (TIN 21 Mar 2002). In 2001, however, Nepalese authorities allowed the Tibetan community in Kathmandu to celebrate publicly the Dalai Lama's birthday, according to the U.S. State Department (U.S. DOS Mar 2002).

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.


Office of Tibet, New York. Representative. Telephone interview (New York: 21 Mar 2002).

President, International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). Telephone interview (Washington, DC: 21 Mar 2002).

Tibet Information Network (TIN). Director. Telephone interview (London: 21 Mar 2002).

Tibet Information Network (TIN). "Tibetan Prisoners in Nepal Seek Royal Pardon" (15 Feb 2002), [Accessed 20 Mar 2002]

Tibet Information Network (TIN). "Decline in Refugee Numbers as China and Nepal Tighten Security on Tibetan Border" (2 Jan 2002), [Accessed 20 Mar 2002]

Tibet Information Network (TIN). "New Increase in Deportations of Tibetans from Nepal" (24 Dec 2001), [Accessed 20 Mar 2002]

UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). UNASYLVA: AN INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF FORESTRY AND FOREST PRODUCTS, "Khumbu ? Country of the Sherpas" (Vol. 21, No. 84, 1967), [Accessed 20 Mar 2002]

US Committee for Refugees (USCR). WORLD REFUGEE SURVEY 2001, "China (Including Tibet)" (Washington, DC: 2001), p. 130-131.

U.S. Department of State. COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2001, "Nepal" (Washington, DC: 4 Mar 2002), [Accessed 20 Mar 2002]

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