Both Nepal and China have issued strongly-worded statements in defense of their actions regarding the deportation of 18 Tibetans back to Tibet from Kathmandu on May 31. The statements may have been provoked by the strong reactions to the deportations by the U.S., UK and other European governments, and the international media.

The Nepalese Home Ministry has now told the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kathmandu that this group of Tibetans was ‘a special case’ although it did not state why, seemingly contradicting an earlier Nepalese Foreign Ministry statement that described the deportations as “standard practice.”

The UNHCR, which has condemned the deportations, does not carry out formal refugee status determination in Nepal, but said on June 6 that they have reason to believe that the Tibetans were ‘of concern’ according to their mandate. This means that they would have been regarded as de facto refugees from a protection perspective. Twelve of the Tibetans in the group had arrived in exile to seek an education, and five of them – four monks and one female farmer – wanted to practice their religion at monasteries or nunneries in India, according to the Office of Tibet in Kathmandu.

The 18 Tibetans were forcibly removed from Hanuman Dhoka prison in central Kathmandu at 5 am on 31 May. According to sources in Kathmandu, they were handed into Chinese custody after Chinese embassy officials in Kathmandu paid fines totaling $1,713 to secure their release from prison. The removal of the Tibetans, eight of whom are under 18, reportedly took an hour or more due to the resistance of the group, who were heard screaming and shouting inside the prison the morning of the deportation. The order to implement the deportations reportedly came from the highest levels of the Nepalese government.

The Nepalese Minister for Foreign Affairs, Narendra Bikram Shah, told the Kathmandu Post on Monday (2 June) that the Nepalese authorities had been carrying out their standard practice in dealing with the group of 18 Tibetans. “The standard practice is that every time we nab the Tibetans fleeing from the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, we launch a thorough investigation into their allegations of torture and persecution in Tibet and either deport them or hand over to UNHCR. This time, too, same procedures have been followed,” he told the English-language newspaper. Gulia Ricciarelli-Renawat, Protection Officer at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Kathmandu, said: “If the Minister has been rightly quoted then I am surprised. Of course every government carries out its own investigations to an extent, but I have not heard of things being done in this way by Nepal before. Normally the procedure is for those Tibetans who do arrive in Nepal to be interviewed by the UNHCR, and if their cases are of concern according to our mandate, they are sent onto India.” Ricciarelli-Renawat said that it is too early to say whether the latest deportations represent a shift in policy, and that the Home Ministry had not specified why this was a ‘special case’.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said on June 3rd that the deportations “not only violate international norms and practices regarding the humane treatment of asylum seekers, but also tarnish Nepal’s long-standing and well-deserved reputation of tolerance and hospitality.” Although Nepal has not signed the Refugee Convention or 1967 Protocol (the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, see note below), partially at least so as not to jeopardize its relationship with China, a verbal ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the Nepalese government and the UNHCR has been in place since January 1990 that allows UHCR to assist Tibetans who have arrived in Nepal to continue through to India after a stay at the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre in Kathmandu. This Tibetan centre is managed and staffed by the Tibet Welfare Office, under UNHCR auspices, and funded by contributions from the United States government and some private voluntary contributions.

The deportations occurred at a time when Nepal’s Prime Minister had resigned, but the political status quo has been maintained this week with the appointment by the King of Nepal of another Prime Minister from the ruling monarchist party, Surya Bahadur Thapa. The King of Nepal is likely to be aware of the issues regarding Tibetans seeking to pass through Nepal from Tibet. Nepal, a desperately poor country, has undergone years of political turbulence, with ongoing Maoist insurgence and the repercussions of the massacre of the royal family in 2001, and the issue of the plight of Tibetan exiles in Nepal is not generally regarded as a high political priority. Some senior Nepalese officials have expressed resentment at the level of interest by Western governments in this issue.

A statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Nepal on June 3rd stated that the 18 Tibetans “are by no means refugees but illegal immigrants who have violated laws and regulations of immigration of both countries. His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, in accordance with its relevant laws, made the decision to repatriate these people. This is a matter within Nepal’s sovereign jurisdiction and a common international practice.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said at a June 6 press briefing in Beijing that the issue should not be ‘politicized’, calling it a simple case of illegal immigration because the Tibetans left China and entered Nepal illegally. “Recently the Nepalese police seized 21 illegal immigrants from China. They left China illegally via Tibet. And according to the normal practice of handling illegal immigrants in the world, after verifying their identities, 18 of them were repatriated to China on May 31,” Zhang said. “As to how China will handle this case, it’s a domestic issue and I’m not so clear about it.”

Deportees to be “investigated” in Tibet

A June 5 report by Radio Free Asia quoted an official in Shigatse (Chinese: Xigaze) in the Tibet Autonomous Region as saying that the group of 18 Tibetans would be held at a detention centre there. The official told RFA: “We will thoroughly investigate their illegal actions.”

Eight members of the group were suffering from sickness and general weakness prior to their deportation, probably due to a combination of the physical effects of their journey into exile across the Himalayas and the conditions and stress of their imprisonment. Three of them needed assistance to walk, and most of them had diarrhea and gastro-intestinal Infections, which are endemic in Nepal during the summer months. In the same report, RFA quoted an official in Tibet who wished to remain anonymous saying that two of the group had developed a fever, and that officials were concerned that they could be demonstrating symptoms of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), but this report could not be confirmed. It is possible that the condition of the sick Tibetans has deteriorated further since their departure from Nepal; fevers can accompany gastro-intestinal infections. No cases of SARS have been officially reported in the TAR, and Nepal has not had a confirmed case of SARS.

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 centers 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.

Security on both sides of the border has been stepped up dramatically in the past few years, leading to a fall in the number of Tibetan new arrivals in Nepal and increasing the risk for Tibetans transiting to India. There are many reliable reports of the Nepali police deporting Tibetans seeking refuge in Nepal back across the border. 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 Tibetans. In this recent deportation, Nepalese police officers were photographed by Western observers carrying a box of a liquor from Sichuan called Qian Kun (Heaven and Earth) back from the Chinese side of the border – a gift in exchange from their Chinese colleagues.

The UNHCR is currently carrying out an internal review of the situation regarding Tibetan arrivals and how the UNHCR should respond to the various groups of Tibetans who are in Nepal, both those who are in transit to India, and those who have been residents of the kingdom prior to 1990.

Deportation of Uighurs held in Kathmandu

Although it is the first known instance of direct involvement of the Chinese authorities in a Tibetan deportation case in Nepal at this level – including paying the fines of the detainees – it is not the first time that China has reportedly cooperated with Nepal in the deportation of those it regards as Chinese nationals from Kathmandu. Last year, three ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (formerly East Turkestan) were forcibly returned to China from Nepal despite UNHCR concern. According to Amnesty International, the fate of two of the deportees, Shaheer Ali and Abdu Allah Sattar, remains unclear but sources suggest that the third, Kheyum Whashim Ali, is currently detained in the regional capital Urumqi. Amnesty International said in a statement on 2 June that it ‘remains seriously concerned for his safety’.

Kheyum Whashim Ali had been detained initially in the central jail in Kathmandu, then transferred to Hanuman Dhoka. UNHCR officials had been allowed to visit him in prison, had recognized him as a person ‘of concern’ and were making plans to resettle him in another country. In mid-May 2002, Kheyum Whashim was removed from the prison but UNHCR was unable to determine his whereabouts. Reports from Xinjiang confirmed his return to China. The two other Uighurs, Shaheer Ali and Abdu Allah Sattar, had been living in Kathmandu while they waited to be resettled. Their homes were raided by police and they were then detained in Hanuman Dhoka prison in December 2001. They are believed to have been returned to China in January 2002, and it is not known whether they were taken from the prison by Nepalese police or Chinese embassy officials. The political climate following September 11, 2001 was said to be a factor in the detention and removal of these three Uighurs from Nepal. Repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang has been stepped up following September 11 as China has sought to equate ‘ethnic separatism’ with ‘terrorism’.

China’s propaganda campaign in Nepal

China has been steadily increasing its influence in Nepal in recent years and the two countries have strengthened trade and diplomatic links. During a visit to Tibet in April, Nepalese Consul General to Tibet Shankar Prasad Pandey said that as the situation in Nepal becomes more stable, Nepal is ready to expand its trade with China and develop its economy (Xinhua 18 April). Xu Minyang, a vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government, said: ‘China and Nepal are friendly neighboring countries with a profound friendship, and Nepal has always supported the one-China principle.’

The Nepalese authorities have taken the position for some years that they do not permit any kind of ‘anti-China’ activity in Nepal, and there has been increasing pressure on the Tibetan community there as a result. On December 10th last year, International Human Rights Day, Nepalese police ordered Tibetans not to use a loudspeaker, distribute booklets or make speeches with unfavorable references to China during a prayer ceremony. Nepalese police also stopped a cultural event with a Tibetan opera troupe on March 17th this year. At Losar, Tibetan New Year, also in March, Tibetans were not allowed to carry a portrait of the Dalai Lama in a procession, even though this even has happened for many years without any interference from the authorities. On July 6th last year a reception for the foreign diplomatic community to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday was cancelled less than 24 hours before it was to take place. The Radisson Hotel, which was hosting the reception, told the Dalai Lama’s representative that they had been told to cancel the event by the Nepalese authorities.

China has also been active in its attempts to influence Nepali intellectuals and the media on Beijing’s position in Tibet. On 17 August last year, six Kathmandu-based journalists flew to Lhasa on a 17-day trip paid for by the TAR government. Some of the articles produced were similar in content to those published in Beijing’s official press. For instance, in one article entitled ‘Yesterday’s serf is a dignified citizen today’, the editor of Kantipur Daily, Yubaraj Ghimire, told the story of a mother of seven who lived a miserable life of serfdom until the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 – and now lives in a modern house with telephone and television, following the development of her area by the Chinese authorities. A second article by the same journalist stated that the Dalai Lama’s ‘popularity and acceptance are visibly on the decline in Tibet’. Many Nepalese wrote to the editor to complain about these articles, but the letters were not published.

Note: The 1967 Protocol extends the effect of the 1951 refugee convention to cover persons who suffered persecution after 1951. Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states that the term refugee is applied to a person who owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his(/her) nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself (/herself) of the protection of his(/her) country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his(/her) former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. There is a wide variance amongst signatories of the Convention as far as the interpretation of this definition is concerned.

Article 33 (1) of the Convention enshrines the concept of non-refoulement, which means that a refugee or asylum-seeker cannot be forcibly returned to a country where they fear persecution on the basis above. The concept of non-refoulement has become accepted as a principle of customary international law, which means that it is effectively binding even on states that have not signed the Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol.