In recent decades, a steady stream of Tibetan asylum seekers has crossed the Himalayan mountain range to escape political, religious, and cultural persecution and seek refuge in Nepal. Kathmandu has also been used as a transit point for asylum seekers on their way to Dharamsala, India, which has a large Tibetan presence. In the last 10 years, the Tibetan community in Nepal has been stable at around 20,000 people.1
Many Tibetans who arrived in Nepal before January 1, 1990about 14,000 individualsare regarded as refugees by the government of Nepal, which normalizes their residence in Nepal with so-called Refugee Cards (RC). Those who arrived after January 1, 1990, are officially regarded as persons in transit because the Nepali government stopped issuing Refugee Cards to those arriving after that date. Many new arrivals from Tibet go through Nepal to reach India, though not all Tibetans are in transit. Nepal has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which regulates the treatment of refugees under international law.2
Tibetans in Nepal face discrimination and uncertainty due to their tenuous legal status, and face restrictions on state-provided education, health care, and employment. Their freedom of movement is restricted by requirements that they register with the chief district officer (CDO)3 when they change residence and when traveling outside the district in which they are registered. Tibetans with a Refugee Card cannot travel outside of Nepal unless they obtain an exit permit from the government of Nepal, which is valid for one trip per year to only one destination.4
Tibetans in Nepal also fear being deported without being afforded basic due process rights. These include the right to seek political asylum when they have a well-founded fear of persecution and the right not to be sent to a country where they are likely to be tortured. For instance, in May 2003 Nepal deported 18 Tibetans to China without regard for due process on charges of travelling without valid documents.5 The arbitrary nature of the deportation created fear within the Tibetan community. In late February 2008, China issued an Interpol request for a Tibetan man who had recently arrived in Nepal. The Nepali authorities arrested him at the Tibetan Reception Center and returned him to China without permitting him to contest his deportation before a competent authority. His arrest at the Tibetan Reception Center, the center responsible for processing Tibetans in transit from Tibet to India, long regarded as a safe haven, caused deep fear within the Tibetan community.6
Successive Nepali governments have consistently stated that anti-China activities would not be allowed on Nepali soil. China is an important economic and political neighbor for Nepal. At times this strategic relationship has deepened, such as during former King Gyanendras rule from February 2005 to April 2006. Immediately preceding King Gyanendras assumption of direct control of Nepal on February 1, 2005, the Nepali government closed the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The following day the Chinese government was reported in Chinas Peoples Daily as welcoming the closure.7 While there was global condemnation of then King Gyanendras seizure of power on February 1, 2005, China stated that it was an internal matter for Nepal.8
In 2007, Nepals then-ruling all-party government, known as the Seven Party Alliance, which was broadly accepted as a democratic government, took the unprecedented step of deregistering the Bhota Welfare Office, a local organization assisting Tibetans living in Nepal. The organization had been registered by the Kathmandu CDO in 2007 after agreeing to delete the word Tibetan from the name of the organization. The organization challenged its deregistration in the Supreme Court of Nepal. During the final hearing on the case in February 2008, the government attorney handed a confidential file to the judicial panel, which denied the organizations lawyers access to the documents. The Supreme Court then issued an oral judgment that the organization could not be re-registered.9 This deregistration means the organization is effectively no longer allowed to operate in Nepal, which has serious consequences for the welfare of Tibetans in Nepal. It also raises broader concerns for freedom of association in the country.
Tibetans face considerable hurdles when they seek redress for abuses by the Nepali security forces. Human Rights Watch has continually raised concerns about the impunity enjoyed by security forces for even serious human rights violations, especially during the decade-long civil war, which ended in 2006.10 The army in particular has a well documented history of torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. The failure by various governments of Nepal to address past human rights violations has helped to create an environment in which violations by the security forces of Nepal continue to occur. The current abuses of Tibetan protesters should be viewed as part of this broader failure to address the culture of impunity in Nepal.
1 UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2005 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, p. 435, http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/STATISTICS/4641beb10.pdf.
2 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, entered into force April 22, 1954.
3 The chief district officer is a civilian government administrator who has quasi judicial powers, including to maintain law and order in the district.
4 Human Rights Watch interview with two Tibetans seeking to obtain exit permits, Kathmandu, March 2008 and June 2008.
5 Nepal deports 18 Tibetans, BBC Online, May 31, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2952698.stm.
6 Human Rights Watch interview at Tibetan Reception Center, Kathmandu, March 21, 2008.
7 China welcomes Nepal's closure of Dalai Lama's office, Peoples Daily Online, February 2, 2005, http://english.people.com.cn/200502/02/eng20050202_172693.html.
8 Nepal King Names New Cabinet, World Condemns Him, Reuters, February 3, 2005.
9 Human Rights Watch interview with one of the Nepali lawyers who argued the case in the Supreme Court, Kathmandu, March 2008. Written judgments usually follow oral judgments several months after the oral judgment.
10 Nepal: Urgent Need to Restore Rule of Law: Failure to Punish Those Responsible for Attacks and Killings Fuels Impunity, Human Rights Watch news release, May 23, 2008, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/05/23/nepal18928.htm; Nepal: Truth Commission Bill Disregards Victims Rights: Draft Bill Fails to Meet International Human Rights Standards, Human Rights Watch news release, August 22, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/08/22/nepal16720.htm; Nepal: Supreme Court Orders Action on Disappearances: Government Should Take Immediate Steps to End Impunity, Human Rights Watch news release, June 15, 2007, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/06/15/nepal16194.htm; Nepal: After Peace Agreement, Time for Justice: Army, Maoists Must Account for Killings, Disappearances, Human Rights Watch news release, December 1, 2006, http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/12/01/nepal14727.htm; Human Rights Watch, Clear Culpability: Disappearances by Security Forces in Nepal, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005), http://hrw.org/reports/2005/nepal0205/.