In its second annual report on Tibetan refugees, Dangerous Crossing 2002, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) finds that the increased border presence of Chinese police and China’s political influence were significant obstacles for Tibetans refugees in transit through and residing in Nepal last year.
While approximately 2,500 Tibetans flee their homeland annually, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered a significantly smaller number in 2001 and 2002, most likely due to China’s increased efforts.
The report concludes with recommendations for specific actions by Nepal, other concerned governments, and the UNHCR. In particular, ICT urges the UNHCR, as a neutral party and one that is tasked with “leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee worldwide problems,” to work with the government of Nepal to find solutions that safeguard the rights and well-being of Tibetans refugees, including to ensure that they can find safe refuge in India or return home voluntarily.
The report’s release comes at a time when the government of Nepal is struggling to represent itself in an accommodating position after its collusion with Chinese officials in the forced repatriation (refoulement) of 18 Tibetan refugees on May 31, 2003. Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international refugee law, and several governments, including the Unites States, strongly conveyed official displeasure in Kathmandu and Beijing in response to the May 31 incident.
Following a U.S. congressional threat to withhold economic benefits (reduced tariffs and foreign aid), the government of Nepal was quick to assert that the May 31 refoulement was a unique and unfortunate departure from its usual cooperation with the UNHCR in allowing the safe transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepal to India. However, Dangerous Crossings 2002 points to a deteriorating pattern of behavior on Nepal’s part towards Tibetan refugees, making a case that the May 31 incident reflected both the devolution of Kathmandu’s hospitality towards Tibetans in Nepal and the evolution of its tilt towards Beijing on Tibetan issues.
Each year, the fate of thousands of Tibetans is determined within the narrow mountain Kingdom of Nepal, wedged between the great Asian powers of China and India. ICT’s Dangerous Crossings 2002 is a resource for those who seek to understand what can happen when Tibetans cross these borders in search of freedom in exile.