In the morning of May 29, Tibetan staff from the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center (Nelan Khang) in Kathmandu arrived at the Nepalese Department of Immigration (DOI) jail to pay fines and secure the release into United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) custody of 18 Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese repression who were recently apprehended en route from the Tibet-Nepal border to Kathmandu.

When the Tibetan Nelan Khang staff arrived, two officials from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu were present, reportedly accompanied by four or five Nepalese police. The Chinese officials were reportedly preparing documents for the release of the 18 Tibetan refugees into their custody for the purposes of forced repatriation.

Three minors traveling with the refugee group were released earlier by fine payment, in a departure from a long-standing procedure whereby apprehended Tibetans are temporarily arrested by Nepalese authorities, not fined, and then turned over by the DOI to the UNHCR for processing as “persons of concern” and onward travel to India.

In this case, the Nepalese government made known its intent to forcibly repatriate the group to Tibet, and the Nelan Khang staff was prepared to take them back, if necessary. Nepal has also made it known that China pressured it to curtail the hospitality traditionally extended to Tibetan refugees.

Upon notification of this situation, several western embassies and the office of the UNHCR in Kathmandu contacted the DOI and Home Ministry to express their strong objections to the complete departure from the protection process for Tibetan refugees and Nepal’s obligations under customary international law regarding forced repatriation of Tibetan refugees.

The Chinese Embassy staff left the DOI jail in the afternoon, after which the Tibetans were handcuffed and taken in a Nepalese police van to Hanuman Dokha Police headquarters and jailed there with common criminals. The UNHCR immediately requested permission in writing to the DOI to interview the Tibetans so that it could provide them some measure of protection, and it copied this request to the Deputy Superintendent of Police.

The 18 Tibetan refugees are not expected to be held longer than 24 hours, after which their fate is uncertain. However, in an ominous twist, the DOI has issued a request to UNHCR that the released minors, now staying at the Nelan Khang, be returned to the custody of the DOI.

A crowd of Tibetans has reportedly gathered outside of the Hanuman Dokha Police headquarters to prevent the possible handover of the refugees to Chinese custody.

“We are deeply dismayed that the Nepalese government is apparently abandoning a moral approach to Tibetan refugees, widely heralded by the international community, in favor of a dark and shifty new practice,” said Mary Beth Markey, U.S. Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

“We very much hope that the UNHCR process can be resurrected, and ICT calls on all concerned governments to take immediate measures to ensure a return to that process,” Markey continued.

“Ironically, while the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the history-making ascent by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, China is trying to push back 18 Tibetans who crossed the Himalayas with nothing but the shirts on their backs in order to flee Chinese repression in Tibet,” Markey concluded.