(Kathmandu) – Nepal has imposed increasing restrictions on Tibetans living in the country as a result of strong pressure from China, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published today. The new Nepali government should make it clear to China that it will accept Tibetans who flee persecution as refugees and will not restrict basic rights of peaceful expression, assembly, and association.
The 100-page report, “Under China’s Shadow: Mistreatment of Tibetans in Nepal,” shows that Tibetan refugee communities in Nepal are now facing a de facto ban on political protests, sharp restrictions on public activities promoting Tibetan culture and religion, and routine abuses by Nepali security forces. These include excessive use of force, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment in detention, threats and intimidation, intrusive surveillance, and arbitrary application of vaguely formulated and overly broad definitions of security offenses.
“The situation for the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal has markedly deteriorated since China’s violent crackdown on protests in Tibet in 2008,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While Nepal continues to offer some protections to Tibetans, it is succumbing to Chinese pressure to limit the flow of Tibetans across the border and imposing restrictions on Tibetans in violation of its legal obligations. China cloaks its demands as security concerns, but they are really just an extension of its repression in Tibet and aimed at making it harder for Tibetans to tell the world of their plight.”
Nepal is home to a sizeable Tibetan community and has long played a crucial role as a haven and gateway for Tibetans fleeing repression in China. In 2008, China responded to large-scale popular protests on the Tibetan plateau by initiating a sustained crackdown, ramping up efforts to prevent Tibetans from escaping to Nepal, and increasing efforts to silence Tibetan communities abroad, in particular in Nepal.
As a result of a massive security presence in Tibetan areas of China and increased cooperation between Nepalese and Chinese security forces in recent years, China has been able to stem the flow of Tibetan refugees escaping to Nepal. In 2013, fewer than 200 Tibetans were recorded as having fled China, as compared to a pre-2008 annual average of more than 2,000.
"Under China’s Shadow” details how Nepal subsequently signed several security and “intelligence-sharing” agreements with China, and implemented close monitoring of the Tibetan community, its leaders, and real or perceived activists. The Nepal government has pledged increased cooperation with China’s People’s Armed Police border forces to “curb illegal activities at the border” and establish “an effective system of repatriation of illegal immigrants,” with no mention of protection of asylum seekers and refugees. The report also documents how the deployment of intimidating numbers of armed police in Tibetan neighborhoods on politically sensitive dates, such as the birthday of the Dalai Lama, or when high-level Chinese dignitaries visit, is now standard practice by the Nepal authorities.
“Nepal is invoking vague and inconsistent justifications to silence peaceful protest, discriminate against Tibetans, and intimidate Nepali civil society activists,” said Adams. “Any restrictions must be based on law, and not on Chinese political sensitivities.”
Forced returns to China
Under the terms of a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the government of Nepal and the office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Nepal guarantees Tibetans who reach its territory safe passage to India, where they can obtain refugee status. International law prohibits Nepal from forcibly repatriating Tibetan refugees because they would be at risk of torture or persecution in China.
Yet partly as a result of the increasing cooperation between Nepal and China’s border security forces detailed in this report, there are significant concerns that Nepal may at times forcibly return Tibetans to China. A former senior Nepali Home Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that local border police have pushed back or forcibly repatriated Tibetans found at or near the border if they determined that they were not “legitimate refugees,” though no legal process or hearings were carried out. Another official, then at the Department of Immigration, also told Human Rights Watch that Tibetans were occasionally forced back.
While Human Rights Watch is not able to corroborate these admissions, they appear to be credible and require further investigation, not least because such individuals face a high risk of torture and ill-treatment on return to China. Tibetans detained by Chinese authorities for crossing the border irregularly from Nepal are routinely imprisoned and physically abused.
Nepali officials have justified their increasingly restrictive policies toward Tibetan refugees by citing “geopolitical sensitivities,” Nepal’s official adherence to the “one-China principle,” and what they present as the related duty of not allowing “Nepali soil to be used for anti-China activities.” Yet the term “anti-China activities” has no meaning or force in Nepali law. Any policies or practices specifically targeting Tibetan political speech are clearly discriminatory and violate international law. Nepal’s prohibition of peaceful political protests, even those by noncitizens, violates well established international human rights obligations.
The consequences of Nepal’s hardening stance are being felt across the Tibetan community. Nepal continues to deny at least half the Tibetans in Nepal proper identity documents, making Tibetans more vulnerable to increased surveillance, monitoring, and abuse by police or the criminal justice system, regardless of whether they are politically active. It is harder for Tibetans to obtain documentation that would allow them to go to school, seek employment, run businesses, travel abroad, or engage in other activities.
“Nepal continues to deny thousands of Tibetans, most of them born in Nepal, any legal existence by refusing to issue them any form of official identification,” said Adams. “This fuels a pattern of marginalization and abuse of the Tibetan community at large.”
The report shows that the government’s emphasis on taking China’s political sensitivities into account has also increasingly affected Nepal’s civil society and media. Nongovernmental organizations that have continued to monitor the human rights situation of the Tibetan community have been subjected to pressures and accused of disloyalty towards Nepal.
Human Rights Watch called on Nepal to take specific measures to better guarantee the basic rights of Tibetans in the country, including providing all eligible Tibetans with refugee identification certificates and strictly upholding international law prohibiting forced returns (nonrefoulement). Human Rights Watch also urged China to stop pressuring Nepal to take measures inconsistent with Nepal’s international human rights and refugee law obligations.
“Nepal seems to think that restricting the rights of Tibetans is a small price to pay to placate a powerful neighbor,” said Adams. “While good relations with China are important, restricting basic rights crosses a red line. It not only undermines efforts to uphold a very fragile rule of law in Nepal, it also encourages politically motivated policing and impunity for abuses.”
“[The Chinese delegation] demanded that Nepal punish the Tibetans illegally entering into Nepalese territory as per the law of the land, instead of handing them over to the UN refugee agency.”
– A Nepali official present at a Ministry-level meeting in Beijing, July 2012
“I thought I would be safe here. But now I realize China is telling Nepal what to do about us.”
– Tibetan refugee Dorje Tsering, Kathmandu, March 2013
“We are afraid that the Nepali authorities share all this information with China. Many of us have relatives back in Tibet, and we fear that the authorities there might retaliate against them.”
– J.T., Kathmandu, December 2012
“Right now we are discussing the possibility of turning in to the Chinese government those Tibetans who do not have legal IDs here and are involved in anti-Chinese movements.”
– Deputy Inspector Gen. of Police Bharat Bahadur G.C., March 2009
“The day the police took us out of the basement we resisted walking over the bridge [to Nepal], we didn’t want to go! But the Chinese policemen just grabbed us by the neck and forced us across the bridge.”
– A Tibetan with Chinese citizenship forced back to Nepal, April 2012