Nepal hosted nearly 131,000 refugees at the end of 2001. These included 110,780 Bhutanese, 20,000 Tibetans, 25 persons of various nationalities recognized as refugees under the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and 12 persons with claims pending before UNHCR.

Nepal is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and considers all asylum seekers – other than the established Tibetan population and certain Bhutanese – to be illegal immigrants who may be arrested and detained at any time. However, Nepal allows UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations, although persons recognized as refugees under the agency's mandate have no legal status, no rights in Nepal, and no prospects for local integration. Therefore, UNHCR generally pursues resettlement in other countries for persons recognized under its mandate.

During the year, UNHCR decided the claims of 19 persons, recognizing 7 as refugees and rejecting 12. Another 12 claims were pending at year's end.

Refugees from Bhutan

The Bhutanese refugees are Lhotsampa – ethnic Nepalese Hindus from southern Bhutan – who have fled what they term ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Bhutanese government, which primarily represents the country's majority Buddhist Drupka population.

Most of the refugees, 100,780, live in seven UNHCR-assisted camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of eastern Nepal. According to Nepalese authorities, as many as 10,000 Bhutanese – mostly unregistered – live outside the camps. UNHCR does not assist the non camp refugees.

The Nepalese Ministry of Home Affairs registers newly arrived Bhutanese as asylum seekers and permits them to move into the camps, pending the government's determination of their refugee status. During the year, 21 Bhutanese (who were believed to have entered in previous years) requested asylum. Of those, the government recognized 10 as refugees and denied 11.

Over the years, the refugees have had primary responsibility for running camp schools, operating the health facilities, distributing food, and maintaining the water supply. UNHCR and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to help the refugees move toward self-sufficiency.

In December 2000, the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments entered their tenth round of talks on repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees. By the end of the year, the two governments had agreed to establish a Joint Verification Team to identify potential candidates for repatriation.

However, the team had not agreed on the verification procedures by the end of 2000, and concerns about time frame, transparency, and decision-making authority cast doubts on the plan's feasibility. In addition, Bhutanese refugees protested their lack of representation at the talks.

In March 2001, the Joint Verification Team started the verification process at Khudunabari camp. In preparation, government authorities suspended the activities of the Karakavitta Screening Center, where they determined Bhutanese asylum claims. The center's activities remained suspended at year's end.

UNHCR provided advice to the governments of Nepal and Bhutan concerning legal aspects of the verification process. In November, the two governments reentered talks to address problems facing the team, including Nepal's argument that some of the refugees who had thus far been verified as Bhutanese should be immediately repatriated. The team finished its work at Khudunabari in December, verifying more than 12,000 persons as refugees. By year's end, however, none had been repatriated. In addition, the team had not yet begun verification at the other camps.

Refugees from Tibet

Most of the estimated 20,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal arrived between 1959 and 1989. At the end of 1989, Nepal stopped registering Tibetan refugees and no longer allowed newly arriving Tibetans to remain. Instead, the Nepalese government agreed to allow the refugees to transit through Nepal to India – home to a large Tibetan exile community and to their leader, the Dalai Lama – and to allow UNHCR access to them.

Of the remaining registered refugees, some 12,000 live in a settlement in Kathmandu's Bouddhanath District, while the remainder live in Pokhara, Baglung, Mustang, Taplejung, Manang, Rasuwa, Solukhumbu, and Lalipur.

In January, Nepalese authorities began issuing a new passport-style travel document for registered Tibetan refugees (replacing the previous one-page document). According to UNHCR, most foreign diplomatic missions in Nepal consider the new document valid for travel purposes.

During the year, Tibetans fleeing human rights abuses by Chinese authorities in Tibet continued to transit from Nepal to India at an average rate of 100 persons per month – half the previous year's rate. By year's end, UNHCR had assisted 1,381 Tibetans in their journey from Nepal to India.

The Nepalese authorities generally direct newly arrived Tibetans to a Tibetan-run transit center in Kathmandu. The center provides medical and psychosocial services, and UNHCR provides ongoing travel assistance.

However, during 2001, Nepalese authorities once again increased security along the border with Tibet (as they had done in late 1999), leading to a significant decline in Tibetans trying to enter Nepal. According to the London-based Tibetan Information Network, an official Chinese report issued near the end of the year said that 2,500 Tibetans had been caught during the previous eight months attempting to cross the border either into or out of Tibet.

According to UNHCR, Nepalese authorities were confirmed to have forcibly returned seven Tibetans to China during 2001. The Tibetan Information Network puts the figure higher, claiming that between November 25 and December 24 alone, Nepalese police returned 15 Tibetans to Chinese border guards, including seven children sent from Tibet by their parents with a guide. The Nepalese police said that the "deportees" did not claim asylum and were merely illegal travelers without documents.


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