Nepal has violated the well-established “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and contravened its obligations under international law by forcibly returning three Tibetan refugees to Chinese border police in early June. This is the first confirmed case of the refoulement of Tibetan refugees from Nepal since May 2003. Two of the Tibetans who were returned, a young woman and a monk, are now in prison in Tibet.

The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the government of Nepal and the UNHCR provides for the safe transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepalese territory and onward to India and was put in practice after 1989 when Nepal stopped providing refugee status to new arrivals from Tibet.

Different sources in Nepal have told ICT that two Tibetan monks, 20-year old Dawa and 21-year old Dorjee, and a 22-year old woman called Penpa, were detained in early June by Nepalese police in Nepal’s Humla district bordering Purang (Chinese: Burang) county in Ngari prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region. The three Tibetans were held at the police post in the village of Muchu, about a day’s walk from the Tibet-Nepal border. According to ICT sources, Chinese border police were in touch with the Nepalese police, and the three Tibetans were taken by helicopter to the border at Hilsa, accompanied by a Nepalese politician and a policeman. Chinese security personnel collected them there and took them back into Tibet. According to the same sources, two of the Tibetans, one of the monks and the young woman, have now been jailed and will serve around six months. The second monk has been allowed to return to his monastery.

The Tibetan woman is from Shigatse and may be an official, and the monks are from Korchak monastery, just a couple of hours walk from the border with Nepal. Tibetans living this close to the border are typically allowed to cross over and travel a short distance into Nepal without penalty so their detention is unusual. According to local sources, the Chinese authorities were looking for the woman, hoping to stop her from reaching Kathmandu and traveling onward to India. ICT also learned that the Nepalese Armed Police Force, tasked with monitoring the borders, was not involved in the incident.

The refoulement was first reported by ABC Nepalese television on July 22, but full details have not been available until now.

Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Nepal is duty-bound under its own agreement with the UNHCR to ensure the safe transit of Tibetan refugees through its territory and, having acceded to the Torture Convention, not to put them at risk of imprisonment and torture in Tibet. We urge the Nepal government and the UNHCR to work together to investigate this incident, including China’s extra-territorial role, and to adopt remedies that prevent future occurrences of refoulement from Nepal, including written instructions and trainings for immigration and border police in proper procedures and international human rights standards.”

The principle of non-refoulement (forcible repatriation) is a norm of international law that forbids the expulsion of a refugee into an area where the person might be subjected to persecution. Although Nepal is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention or Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it has acceded to the U.N. Torture Convention in which the principle of non-refoulement is also enshrined.

The U.S. State Department 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices reports that “Tibetans repatriated from Nepal reportedly suffered torture, including electric shocks, exposure to cold and severe beatings and were forced to perform heavy physical labour.”

While it is the first confirmed case of refoulement of Tibetans from Nepal since May 2003 when Chinese officials seized 18 Tibetan refugees from a Kathmandu jail, it is certainly possible that other incidents have happened unobserved in remote border areas. A near case of refoulement occurred also in June, when a group of Tibetans, including two sick children, were apprehended in the Nepal border region by Nepalese police, then abandoned on the difficult route back towards Tibet. The group hid for two days from Chinese police searching for them in the mountains of Nepal until they were rescued and brought safely to the Tibetan refugee transit center in Kathmandu (See ICT report,πs-influence-nepal-and-its-impact-tibetans).

Chinese government pressure on Nepal over its policies on Tibetans is well known, and it has used various economic and other inducements to move Nepal towards its positions, including that Tibetan refugees are illegal migrants. At the same time, the international community, including foreign embassies in Kathmandu, regularly urge Nepal to adhere to its “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with the UNHCR and to find durable solutions for its long-staying Tibetan refugee population, including proper documentation. In ominous news, the Kathmandu Post reported on July 11 that the Nepal Home Ministry had directed police across Nepal not to transfer detained Tibetan refugees to the Immigration Department for legal processing but to immediately send the refugees back to Tibet, suggesting a direct contravention of the Gentlemen’s Agreement (“Refugees give cops tough time,” Kathmandu Post, July 11, 2010).

Thousands of Tibetan refugees transit through Nepal en route to India each year. The UNHCR maintains a center in Kathmandu where they are processed as “persons of concern” and given urgent care until they can be quickly moved onwards to India. The number of Tibetans arriving safely in Kathmandu has decreased in recent years as a result of the tightening of security at the Tibet-Nepal border and across Tibet.