On the altar of foreign relations

The Kathmandu government is forcing the Tibetan-refugee population to remain in limbo

In early November, during a visit to Nepal by Ellen Sauerbrey, a United States official in charge of refugee policy, the news suddenly became public that the Kathmandu government was refusing to give the green light to the resettlement process of some 5000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal. The offer of resettlement had been made by the US government in September 2005. "We are talking about the sensitivity of the government of Nepal to a very large and very immediate neighbour," Sauerbrey ruefully noted, "and that is something that the government of Nepal is going to have to address in the future".

For the past two years, several visiting US officials have repeated Washington, DC's interest in taking in this group of individuals, but the process has been continually stymied due to opposition from Beijing and diffidence of the Kathmandu government, itself reeling under continuing political instability. To the frustration of many, this stance did not change even after the official go-ahead was given for the initial processing for resettlement of the 107,000 Bhutani refugees who have also made Nepal their home for the past decade and a half. Indeed, the US infrastructure in Kathmandu meant to process more than 60,000 Bhutani refugees – a process that began in early November – was originally meant also to oversee the resettlement of these 5000 Tibetans.

The Nepali policy on Tibetan refugees within its territory has long been directly influenced by Beijing. While Tibetans who came to Nepal before 1989 are officially regarded as refugees, those who came after that year are considered 'illegal immigrants'. Since 1989, Kathmandu has refused to issue any official Refugee Certificate to Tibetans. This not only almost completely halts any opportunity for new refugees to integrate into Nepali society, as happened in the past, but makes it significantly more difficult for them to legally leave the country, for onward journey to Dharamsala in India or to Western countries keen to have them. (The Nepal government does issue one-time exit permits for this purpose.)

Despite Nepal's toeing of that line for the past decade and a half, however, Beijing viewed the US's September 2005 offer with increased suspicion, particularly due to the large numbers involved. As such, during a visit to Nepal in July 2006, Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei warned that some serious thinking needed to be undertaken by the Nepali authorities over their decision to provide travel documents to the 5000 Tibetan refugees. During that same trip, the Nepali media began trumpeting an announcement by Beijing that it would be increasing its aid to Nepal by more than 50 percent. Since then, whether or not that pressure had ultimately been successful seemed up in the air.

Indeed, Nepali officials seemed unwilling to discuss the problem at all, though some work does still appear to be progressing behind the scenes. An official at the US embassy, who requested anonymity, revealed that Nepali officials have left open the possibility of resolving the issue at a future date, perhaps when the Bhutani situation moves closer to a resolution. "It's no secret that Nepal is close to China and far from the United States, and certainly this is a difficult position to be in," an embassy official noted. "So we are sensitive to Nepal's concern in this regard, and hope that in the future we can work something out. There is no time limit on this: the offer doesn't run out. This is a group that we know and are concerned about, and we know that there needs to be a resolution."

Rough road

Despite the freeze in policy since 1989, the last few years have been particularly difficult for Tibetan refugees in Nepal. In January 2005, under King Gyanendra, the Nepali government shut down the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Its doors remain closed even today. By the efforts of several naturalised Tibetan Nepali citizens, the current government did briefly issue permission to open a Tibetan Welfare Office, but terminated the office's license within a month. Likewise in an attempt to curry Chinese favour during a period of increasing regional alienation for the Gyanendra regime, in October 2005 the king halted the issuing of exit permits to Tibetan refugees. Though this practice was resumed in June 2006, after the change in government, the halt temporarily stymied the roughly 2500 Tibetans who flee to India via Nepal each year.

Officially, there are about 14,000 Tibetans living in Nepal. According to Tibetan statistics, however, that number is closer to 20,000, suggesting a group of Tibetans around 6000 strong living outside official watch. Due to the fact that Tibetans who entered Nepal after 1989 are unable to settle down in the country, the US offer of resettlement is said to be particularly aimed at those who do not have legal identity papers, and who are considered vulnerable by the Dharamsala government. In 1999, the government of Nepal started issuing new Refugee Certificates to Tibetan refugees in Nepal, at a time when there were still about 3000 Tibetan refugees on the waiting list. But then the Nepali authorities suddenly stopped issuing the certificates, for reasons that are still unclear. As such, this group is thought to constitute the bulk of those who will receive priority in any eventual resettlement process.

Who exactly that group will ultimately constitute has inevitably been the fodder for significant anxiety over the past two years. In 1991, the US government granted asylum to 1000 Tibetans from India and Nepal, during which time several hundred Tibetans from Nepal left for the US with exit permits and travel documents issued by the Nepali government. The thinking now is that the number of individuals resettled at that time was low enough not to ruffle too many Chinese feathers. But another difference between the 1991 and 2007 situations has been the levels of confusion over who could be chosen for resettlement. In 1991, all of the candidates were chosen by a lottery system. This time, things seem significantly less clear.

The Dharamsala government initially announced that the programme would include former soldiers of the secretive, now defunct, CIA-backed Mustang Tibetan Resistance Force and their families, as well as those Tibetans in Nepal who did not have Refugee Certificates. Since then, however, little of substance has shed much light on the subject, and confusion and mounting frustration has instead pervaded Nepal's Tibetan communities. Bewilderment spiked last year, when a Tibetan leader in the Kathmandu Valley publicly read out a list of names of possible resettlement candidates – names that were not included on the list of people without Refugee Certificates. But officials at the US embassy in Kathmandu are forthright that they do not currently have a list of either individuals or groups who will ultimately be included. Said one, "The most vulnerable – and that means people who are most subject to persecution and return to their homeland, the people who are in danger – are the ones we try to help first … I can't address any specific group because to the best of my knowledge we have not yet gotten that far."

Although there is dissension, the vast majority of Tibetans in Nepal express a ready desire to resettle to the US. And as the resettlement plans have remained vague, there has appeared a rising flood of hopeful applicants. When Dharamsala first announced the plan, hundreds of Tibetans from outside Nepal quickly filed into the country. They were joined by Tibetans who had been living in more remote areas of Nepal, who moved to Kathmandu in hopes of more readily throwing their hat in the resettlement ring. There are also a large number of non-Tibetan Nepali nationals, many of whom look and speak like Tibetans, who have surreptitiously acquired Tibetan papers, and are hoping to take part in any eventual resettlement.

For the moment, all of this has come to naught. The Nepal government's sudden refusal to grant the 5000 refugees with approval to resettle in the US has been met with widespread condemnation. Vice-president of the International Campaign of Tibet, Mary Beth Markey, recently warned: "It is a shame that the Nepal government is brushing aside this long history of friendship [between Tibetans and Nepalis] to serve its taskmaster to the north." A local Tibetan leader in the Kathmandu Valley concurs: "We are really grateful to Nepal for letting us live here, but we don't enjoy equal rights and benefits with the locals. We have been living under difficult circumstances for almost forty years, and now the US government is giving us an opportunity to seek a better life. I urge the Nepal government authorities to issue exit permit to Tibetans, without coming under pressure from China".

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Himal Southasian