Nepal hosted more than 134,600 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2003. These included some 113,700 Bhutanese refugees mostly in camps, about 10,000 Bhutanese living outside the camps, some 20,000 Tibetans, and 17 persons of various nationalities recognized as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition 29 persons had claims pending before UNHCR, and 206 Bhutanese had claims pending screening by the Nepalese government. There were also 700 Tibetans of concern to UNHCR as they had not been processed for onward travel to a third country, or were awaiting their departure to a third country.
An estimated 1000,000-200,000 Nepalese were internally displaced at year's end as the result of an ongoing Maoist insurgency, although the government of Nepal advised the U.S. Committee for Refugees that a non-governmental survey showed the number of displaced as 350,000.
In January, a Nepalese court sentenced 3 Tibetans who had fled China, and were on their way to seek asylum in India, to three years in jail for lack of valid travel documents, after they failed to pay a $320 fine for illegal entry, and a $52 visa fee. Agence France Press (AFP) reported that the government arrested another 11 Tibetans, including 3 children under similar circumstance in October. On November 24, all were released after a private benefactor paid their fine.
In May, Nepal forcibly returned 18 Tibetans to China, including children. However in July following international criticism of that action, Nepalese authorities handed over 19 Tibetans to UNHCR. In October, China executed a Uighur, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR that Nepal had forcibly returned in 2002. And at the end of the year, according to Radio Free Asia, the Nepalese border police forcibly returned another 21 Tibetans. In a letter to USCR, the Nepalese government stated that it "follows a policy of non-refoulement of asylum seekers." UNHCR also received unconfirmed reports – some of them eyewitness accounts – of refoulement of Tibetans, but the Nepalese government denied them.
The Nepalese government also advised USCR that it gave 864 Tibetans exit permits to enter other countries. The UNHCR office in Nepal reported that over 1,800 Tibetans transited to India in 2003.
Although the government and Maoist rebels entered into a peace agreement in January, by August it had broken down. The insurgency killed more than 1,500 this year alone, and fighting affected 73 out of Nepal's 75 districts. Even during ceasefire Maoists forcibly recruited civilians, including children, and abducted, extorted, threatened, and harassed perceived government supporters, teachers, landowners, and members of other political parties causing displacement. Since August the army and rebels have operated virtually unchecked, killing, kidnapping, raping, and arbitrarily detaining opponents. In early 2004 the Nepalese army jailed 15 soldiers for human rights violations and stated more investigations were continuing. Generally, however, Nepalese officials did not thoroughly investigate or discipline their security forces for violations.
The government provided little assistance to displaced persons. Many displaced persons were reluctant to register for fear of the government would accuse them of rebel sympathies. In addition, the government excluded those dislocated by the army from compensation and barred humanitarian organizations access to displaced people.
Many Nepalese went to India searching for jobs – in addition to fleeing forced recruitment and attacks – since fighting has caused severe economic disruption. In January 2003, an estimated 120,000 Nepalese crossed into India, and in September an estimated 2,000 persons per day were crossing into India, in past years, the migration flow was 300-400 per day.
Refugees from Bhutan
(See "Unending Limbo: Warehousing Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal.") The Nepalese government made a donation to World Food Programme (WFP) earmarked to assist Bhutanese refugees.