Nepal hosted more than 132,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2002. These included more than 112,000 Bhutanese, 20,000 Tibetans, 24 persons of various nationalities recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and 11 persons with claims pending before UNHCR.

An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Nepalese were internally displaced at year's end as the result of an ongoing Maoist insurgency that escalated in 2002. Nearly 1,700 Nepalese were refugees or asylum seekers in other countries.

Nepal is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention. Although the government allows UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations, persons recognized as refugees under the agency's mandate have no legal status in Nepal and no prospects for local integration. Therefore, UNHCR generally pursues resettlement in other countries for such refugees.

During the year, UNHCR decided the claims of 15 persons, recognizing 4 as refugees and rejecting 11.

Refugees from Bhutan

The Bhutanese refugees are Lhotsampa – ethnic Nepalese Hindus from southern Bhutan. Many were forcibly expelled or fled ethnically based harassment by the Bhutanese government, which primarily represents the country's majority Buddhist Drupka population and claims that the Lhotsampas are foreigners. The refugees entered Nepal in the 1990s by way of India, which separates Bhutan and Nepal by a small corridor of land.

Most of the refugees, nearly 103,000, live in seven UNHCR-assisted camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts of eastern Nepal. According to Nepalese authorities, another 10,000 Bhutanese, mostly unregistered, live outside the camps. UNHCR does not assist these 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.

Over the years, the refugees have had primary responsibility for running camp schools, operating the health facilities, distributing food, and maintaining the water supply.

Nepal does not officially allow the refugees to work or move freely outside the camps. However, reductions in food rations in previous years have led some of the refugees to find menial jobs outside the camps.

In December 2000, the Bhutanese and Nepalese governments entered their tenth round of repatriation talks and agreed to identify potential candidates for repatriation by categorizing the camp residents into four groups: Bhutanese, Bhutanese who emigrated, Bhutanese who fled after committing crimes, and non-Bhutanese. Bhutanese officials claim that many Lhotsampas voluntarily emigrated because a 1988 census determined that they were illegal residents, or because they chose to follow family and friends who left. The refugees, however, claim that they were forced at gunpoint to sign voluntary migration forms.

Bhutanese officials also claim that the Lhotsampa "emigrants" were joined by many Nepali-speakers from poverty stricken areas of India and Nepal, who showed up at the border claiming refugee status in order to receive housing and food from UNHCR.

Nepal and Bhutan jointly began the "verification" process – to categorize the camp residents and verify who could return – in March 2001 at Khudunabari camp. In preparation, Nepali authorities suspended the activities of the Karakavitta Screening Center, where the authorities determined Bhutanese asylum claims. Screening activity remained suspended throughout 2002.

Although the joint team categorized more than 12,000 refugees at Khudunabari as Bhutanese, none had been repatriated – and the team had not begun the verification process in any other camps – by the end of 2002. The two governments continued to disagree on which categories of refugees should be repatriated, and the timing of the return. The Bhutanese government also continued to settle northern Bhutanese on ancestral lands from which the Lhotsampas were evicted.

In October, UNHCR began investigating reports of sexual abuse of women and children in the camps. The investigation reportedly revealed 18 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation, including that of a 7-year old girl.

In a joint statement, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the allegations "show the human cost of one of the world's unresolved and forgotten refugee problems."

UNHCR reinforced its camp presence in response to the revelations of abuse and implemented a new referral and reporting system for victims of sexual and gender based violence. The refugee agency also conducted awareness activities (targeting refugees as well as governmental and non-governmental organization staff) and entered into a formal agreement with the local Bar association to ensure that identified cases of abuse are brought to court.

Because of the lack of legal remedies for many abuse victims, UNHCR began exploring options such as relocation of the victims and their families or even resettlement in another country. UNHCR also began identifying new implementing partners to attend to the needs of victims.

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.

During the year, Tibetans fleeing human rights violations by Chinese authorities in Tibet continued to transit from Nepal to India. According to the UNHCR office in Nepal, nearly 2,000 Tibetans made the trip during 2002, most with UNHCR assistance.

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

Close to year's end, Nepal reportedly began detaining and fining newly arrived Tibetans for illegal entrance into Nepal. In one example, on December 13, Nepalese authorities detained and fined three Tibetans, including a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, who had entered Nepal without proper travel documents. Nepalese officials said the three would be sentenced to jail if they did not pay the fine.

According to UNHCR, Nepalese authorities were confirmed to have forcibly returned seven Tibetans to China in January 2002. Other cases of forced return may have occurred without UNHCR's knowledge, as the agency was able to conduct only one border-monitoring mission during the year because of the general security situation in the country.

Internal Displacement

An insurgency by members of the Communist Party of Nepal, a Maoist group, has claimed an estimated 7,000 lives since the rebels declared a "people's war" in 1996. When rebels broke a four-month truce in November 2001, the government imposed emergency rule and fashioned its crackdown as part of the global war on terrorism.

According to a report by the Global IDP Project, the Maoist rebels, government forces, and the effects of war have internally displaced an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Nepalese in 73 of Nepal's 75 districts. The report noted that the Nepalese government largely ignored the displaced, providing only limited assistance, and that displaced children in cities were among the worst affected.

According to the report, conditions for the displaced vary widely, depending on whether persons move to cities or shelter with relatives in rural areas. After November 2001, when security conditions deteriorated in rural areas, many Nepalese fled to large cities such as Kathmandu and Nepalgunj, as well as to India.

A leading Nepalese human rights activist noted, "thousands of people have been fleeing their homes in the mid-western hills in search of safety and employment. We don't know where they are living and under which conditions." A report by the Kathmandu-based Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Center has said that some 4,000 children have been displaced by the conflict.

According to a 2002 report on conflict-induced displacement commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Displacement, many displaced Nepalese are from relatively well-off strata of the population, such as landlords, party workers, security personnel, and teachers – all targeted by the rebels.

Nepalese security forces have also displaced many civilians through food blockades and the torture and killing of persons suspected of aiding the rebels, according to Amnesty International.

At year's end, Nepalese officials announced plans to provide relief to more than a thousand families displaced by the insurgency. The government said it would establish centers in various regions where both "the victims of the Maoists and the Maoists who surrender" would be provided shelter and helped to find employment.


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