KATHMANDU — The world of refugeedom tends to be divided between political exiles and economic migrants, even though the dividing line between the two is often blurred. However, there is one other type of refugee that is unique to South Asia, the pilgrim refugee.
This term may best describe the Tibetans who every year continue to brave the Chinese military dragnet along the Himalayan rimland, surmount dangerous High Himalayan passes, and get exploited by rapacious middlemen, as they escape harsh conditions in the high plateau for the spiritual embrace of their Dalai Lama.
According to records at the UNHCR refugee agency in Kathmandu, the flow of Tibetan pilgrim-refugees has averaged 2500 to 3500 annually in recent times. The set procedure is for UNHCR to hold the refugees in a halfway house in Kathmandu before transferring them to Dharamsala. There are many more who are said to head directly to India without bothering to contact the UNHCR. They descend through the middle hills of Nepal and wend their way through the plains of Uttar Pradesh and up to Dharamsala, and the smoothly functioning reception machinery of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
It is not always that easy, however, for the Nepali Government has blown hot and cold on this continuing flow of Tibetans. Nepal´s geopolitical compulsions—that of the need to balance India´s overwhelming presence with good relations with Beijing— has made Kathmandu succumb to Chinese whims on the matter.
As tensions rise in Lhasa, such as in autumn 1995 when the Chinese administration was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Tibet Autonomous Region, the flow swells. At the same time, so does the pressure from Bejing on Kathmandu authorities to accost and send the Tibetans back across the frontier. In UNHCR parlance, this process of send-back is known as ‘refoulment’.
The nominally pro-Chinese Left Government was in power in Kathmandu during the period of the 30th anniversary celebrations in Lhasa. At a meeting of district administrators held in the town of Pokhara, an instruction was issued to crack down on those infiltrating the high passes.
While any pass that is low enough is useful for the crossing, most middlemen whom the refugees hire guide them down to the plains by avoiding the main trails and police checkposts, or travelling by night only. The most-used routes are in Mustang and Manang in central Nepal, and the Nangpa La trail into Namche Bazaar in eastern Nepal.
The Tibetan-speaking populations of Nepal´s northern areas have been friendly to the refugees, and the idyllic valley of Junbesi that lies between Kathmandu and Namche Bazaar is where many rest and recuperate before continuing to Dharamsala. It is a different matter, however, when the refugees confront administrators.
The present coalition government in Kathmandu has dealt with the situation gingerly. It has issued a go-slow order to the outlying district administrators. What is interesting is that Nepal has no reason to be defensive about its humanitarian attitude towards the Tibetan travellers. These, after all, are docile pilgrims, not firebrand militants.
Says a government official who once served in the Border Administration Department of the Home Ministry: “Officially, we do not acknowledge that Tibetans are allowed safe transit to India through Nepali territory. But on practical terms that is what is happening, on purely humanitarian grounds.”
“It is silly that we cannot even take credit for a good deed that is done,” says a Tribhuvan University political scientist. But who will tell that to the Chinese?