Around 15 Tibetans escaping Tibet have been deported by the Nepalese authorities between November 25 and December 24,2001, according to a new report issued by the London-based Tibet Information Network (TIN). The report, released on December 24, 2001, said this marked increase in the number of Tibetan refugees being handed to Chinese authorities across the Tibetan border by Nepalese officials is technically illegal as the refugees are to be handed over to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Kathmandu.

There has been a marked increase in deportations of Tibetan refugees from Nepal, according to reports from the region. The deportations are technically illegal under international law, and contravene an undertaking given from January 1990 onwards by the Nepalese authorities to hand over asylum-seekers to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Kathmandu. The Nepalese police state that the deportees have not claimed asylum and are merely illegal travellers without documents.

Reliable reports received by TIN indicate that since 25 November at least 15 Tibetans have been returned to border guards on the Chinese side by Nepalese police, including several children who were sent out of Tibet by their parents with a guide. These cases are ones where witnesses were able to pass on information; the real figure for deportations is likely to have been higher. In one incident at the end of November, a nine-year old boy was handed back after being found in the back of a truck by Nepalese police. According to one source, he was detected during a vehicle inspection shortly after leaving the border area when Nepalese police heard him crying. In a second incident about 10 days ago, a Tibetan man and two children were detained south of the border in Nepal near Barabisa (approximately 30 km south of the border) and taken to Tatopani, just a few kilometres from the border, after entering from Tibet. By the time a Tibetan representative from the Kathmandu reception centre for Tibetan refugees arrived in the area two days later, the three Tibetans had been sent back across the border. Local police reportedly said that they had had no instructions as to what to do about the Tibetans, and that they did not have the space to hold people for long. One source reported that police on the Tibetan side of the border gave Nepalese officials a high fee for handing the Tibetans over to them. Last week two Tibetan men and their guide were caught on a bus in the Barabisa area of Nepal by police. Their current whereabouts are not known, but they may have been sent back to Tibet. TIN has also received reliable reports that several guides who take Tibetans across the border have been detained in both Tibet and Nepal in the last few months.

Roland Weil, Protection Officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), told TIN: “It has been agreed with the Nepalese authorities that they should allow Tibetans to transit through Nepal and to proceed to a third country, which in this case is India. The agreement took effect after 31 December 1989 [when the Nepalese government stopped granting legal refugee status to Tibetans arriving from Tibet]. As far as the UNHCR is concerned, anyone who would ask for asylum is entitled to have their asylum claim assessed. For Tibetan refugees arriving in Nepal, this effectively means that Tibetans have the right to transit through Nepal to India. We have had some worries about people being sent back from the Kodari border post area [114 kilometres by road from Kathmandu through Tatopani and Barabisa] for some time.” Roland Weil added that there are still a number of Tibetans using Chinese passports who are able to transit safely.

When the UNHCR is told that Tibetans are being detained in police posts in border regions, it aims to make contact with local police there. Roland Weil said: We aim to inform police of the understanding we have with the Nepalese authorities to allow these Tibetans to transit through Nepal, and we ask them to send these Tibetans down to Kathmandu. We also ask if there is any impediment to doing so, and whether we can help to resolve this. Often, for instance, they are not aware that UNHCR covers the expenses of local police and those Tibetans they accompany to Kathmandu. In certain areas, some officers may be reluctant to allow their men to accompany Tibetans to Kathmandu due to possible risks from the activities of Nepalese Maoist guerrilla forces, as police have been targets for Maoist violence in rural areas. In this case, it is possible for the UNHCR to send staff to accompany the Tibetans. We also contact the Director of Immigration in Kathmandu and ask him to intervene. The main problem we face is getting through to the police as the lines are frequently down. Sometimes by the time we make contact, it is too late and the Tibetans in question have been sent back. When asked about UNHCR procedure when phone contact was not possible, Roland Weil said that it was possible to send a member of staff by car to areas easily accessible from Kathmandu by road, but that prior clearance was needed from the authorities and from a senior level at the UNHCR. He also said UNHCR have on at least one occasion used a helicopter to airlift out a group of Tibetans who were stranded in a remote border town. No UNHCR car was sent in any of the recent cases of deportation, even though the phone lines to the border area were not working.

When the Kathmandu-based UNHCR was informed that two young Tibetan men were being held by police in the Barabisa area from last Thursday (20 December), a letter was sent by the UNHCR to the Director of Immigration requesting his intervention to ensure that the Tibetans were not sent back. The UNCHR has since followed up with the Director General of Immigration requesting an investigation into what has happened to the Tibetans, but no further information had emerged about their whereabouts as of 24 December. Deportation of refugees detained in that area usually takes place within a day of detention.

Reports from Tibetans who have been sent back across the Chinese border from Nepal, but who have subsequently succeeded in escaping, indicate that Nepalese border guards often have friendly relations with their counterparts on the other side of the border, and that they can earn fees for handing back Tibetan refugees. Tibetans who are handed back to the authorities in border areas are frequently detained by the Chinese authorities, and can be held for several weeks or months in detention centres or prisons as a result. Crossing or attempting to cross a border without official papers is a serious offence under Chinese law. Beating, interrogation and other forms of intimidation and maltreatment are common during these periods of detention.