Pawan Mathur* finds that from being sympathetic to their plight in the early days after Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, Nepal is now using Tibetan refugees in the country as a tool to gain aid from China.
The issue of the cremation of the Buddhist monk Shamar Rinpoche has once again brought to the fore the adversity faced by the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. In democratic societies it is a real concern if refugee ethnic communities are denied the rights of cremation of their religious figures. The present articles attempts to look at the problems and conditions of the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. According to the UN Refugee Agency planning figures for Nepal, the country hosts around 15000 Tibetan Refugees.
A history of Tibetan Refugee Migration to Nepal
The expansionist policy pursued by the Chinese Maoist government from 1949-1959 resulted in the internal displacement of over one million Tibetan citizens. Majority of them took refuge in India. However, a considerable number of Tibetans entered Nepal. Tibetan refugees started arriving in the 1950s, but their first major inflow in Nepal occurred after the 1959 Lhasa uprising. King Mahendra of Nepal earned considerable gratitude for opening the Nepalese borders for Tibetan refugees. Asylum was granted to all Tibetans, irrespective of their social status. Refugee Camps were built along the mountain passes that linked Nepal to Tibet. This was a commendable action on King Mahendra’s part, considering the threats of reprisal issued by the Chinese government. The refugees were faced with a plethora of problems. There were serious food shortages, coupled with lack of shelter and basic healthcare facilities.
In 1960, upon the request of Nepalese authority, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) established emergency relief camps. In a similar vein, the Nepalese government, with the assistance of funds donated by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) also set up refugee shelter homes. Till the mid 1980s, the Nepalese government welcomed the Tibetan Refugees with open hands as the latter were not perceived as a threat to Nepalese diplomatic relations with China.
In 1986, Tibet signed a treaty with China. One of the major impacts of the treaty was the restriction on the entry and transit of Tibetan Refugees into Nepal. From 1989, owing to Chinese pressure, Nepal embarked upon an even stricter border control policy leading to more restrictions on the entry of Tibetan refugees.
Problems encountered by Tibetan refugees in Nepal: Role of Chinese influence
Since the change in stance of Nepal’s policy to grant asylum to Tibetan Refugees, the latter have been subjected to a number of problems. The most important problem encountered pertains to lack of documentation of refugees. Irrespective of the “official” statistics, a large number of refugees do not have access to any form of documentation, thereby denying them the legal right of education and employment. This is in sharp contrast to the pre 1989 period when Tibetan refugees were granted Refugee Cards (RC) by then Nepalese government to enable them to access basic amenities. According to the Government of Nepal, Tibetans entering Nepal after 1989 do not have any legal status as refugees, nor have access to the protection of their human rights.
It goes beyond doubt that the change in Nepal’s policy is the result of pressure exerted from China. Since the United Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN) came to power in Nepal, the foreign policy of Nepal has been constantly influenced by its Chinese counterpart. In 2011, China offered an economic aid to Nepal worth US$70 million in return for Nepal’s pursuing of a tough policy towards the Tibetan exiles.
There has been a blatant denial of their fundamental right of freedom and expression under Chinese influence. On 3rd February 2009, the Nepalese government imposed a ban on protests and demonstrations around Chinese embassy and visa offices in Kathmandu, citing security reasons. On 10th March 2010, many Tibetans refugees were arrested after clashes with the police during a protest in Kathmandu, on the 59th anniversary of Chinese invasion of Tibet. A further manifestation of the deplorable right of the freedom of expression of Tibetan refugees became conspicuous when they chose not to carry out demonstrations, fearing repression by the police and the government, on the occasion of World Refugee Day on June 20, 2013. The dilly dallying of the Nepalese government on the burial issue of Tibetan monk Shamar Rinpoche also highlights the influence of China in contemporary Nepal politics. Nepal had denied giving permission for cremation for two weeks, leading to widespread accusations that it was following a policy of obeisance towards China. 
A 2014 report “Under China’s Shadow: Mistreatment of Tibetans in Nepal” published by the international rights group Human Rights Watch documents the sordid plight of the Tibetans in Nepal. The document mentions how the increasing Chinese influence in Nepal and its overarching economic deals have led Nepal to abandon the terms of a Gentleman’s Agreement that it had concluded with the United Nations refugee agency and which is a critical instrument in ensuring the safe passage of Tibetans seeking to escape from China and/or reach India.
International response to the situation
Prominent international organizations like United Nations and the European Union have taken stock of the plight of Tibetan Refugee in Nepal. The UNHCR has strongly advocated for protecting the rights of the Tibetan refugees by urging the Nepal government to grant them official documentation. A European Parliament resolution of 5 April 2011 urged the Nepalese authorities to allow peaceful elections of Tibetans in exile on their territory and to ensure standards of protection for all refugees. Former US President Jimmy Carter minced no words in directly stating that pressure exerted by the Chinese was responsible for the sorry state of conditions of refugees from Tibet.
An Assessment of the current situation
It is clear that Nepal government has bargained the status of Tibetan refugees for Chinese humanitarian aid as well as military assistance. It has virtually paid no heed to the calls of international organizations and human rights groups to ensure a fair treatment of refugees from Tibet. The problems are further aggravated by the fact that Nepal is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UN, which explicitly states the rights of refugees and issues guidelines, laws, and convention to ensure their fair treatment.
Examined in a broader perspective, the current scenario of Tibetan Refugees in Nepal due to increasing Chinese pressure has implications for India too. China in recent times has embarked upon a strategy of encircling India by entering into a development as well as a security cooperation partnership with its neighbours. India needs to assert its presence in Nepal through diplomatic means as well as by stepping up economic aid to Nepal. To ensure the protection of human rights of the Tibetan refugees in Nepal, India, along with the United Nations, and the European Union, must exert pressure on Nepal to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. Active intervention by India is a necessary measure if the problems of Tibetan refugees are to be addressed effectively.
* Pawan Mathur is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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