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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

On the altar of foreign relations The Kathmandu government is forcing the Tibetan-refugee population to remain in limbo.

December 24, 2007

By : Tenzin Choephel

In early November, during a visit to Nepal by Ellen Sauerbrey, a United
States official in charge of refugee policy, the news suddenly became
public that the Kathmandu government was refusing to give the green
light to the resettlement process of some 5000 Tibetan refugees in
Nepal. The offer of resettlement had been made by the US government in
September 2005. “We are talking about the sensitivity of the government
of Nepal to a very large and very immediate neighbour,” Sauerbrey
ruefully noted, “and that is something that the government of Nepal is
going to have to address in the future”.

For the past two years, several visiting US officials have repeated
Washington, DC’s interest in taking in this group of individuals, but
the process has been continually stymied due to opposition from Beijing
and diffidence of the Kathmandu government, itself reeling under
continuing political instability. To the frustration of many, this
stance did not change even after the official go-ahead was given for the
initial processing for resettlement of the 107,000 Bhutani refugees who
have also made Nepal their home for the past decade and a half. Indeed,
the US infrastructure in Kathmandu meant to process more than 60,000
Bhutani refugees – a process that began in early November – was
originally meant also to oversee the resettlement of these 5000 Tibetans.

The Nepali policy on Tibetan refugees within its territory has long been
directly influenced by Beijing. While Tibetans who came to Nepal before
1989 are officially regarded as refugees, those who came after that year
are considered ‘illegal immigrants’. Since 1989, Kathmandu has refused
to issue any official Refugee Certificate to Tibetans. This not only
almost completely halts any opportunity for new refugees to integrate
into Nepali society, as happened in the past, but makes it significantly
more difficult for them to legally leave the country, for onward journey
to Dharamsala in India or to Western countries keen to have them. (The
Nepal government does issue one-time exit permits for this purpose.)

Despite Nepal’s toeing of that line for the past decade and a half,
however, Beijing viewed the US’s September 2005 offer with increased
suspicion, particularly due to the large numbers involved. As such,
during a visit to Nepal in July 2006, Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign
Affairs Wu Dawei warned that some serious thinking needed to be
undertaken by the Nepali authorities over their decision to provide
travel documents to the 5000 Tibetan refugees. During that same trip,
the Nepali media began trumpeting an announcement by Beijing that it
would be increasing its aid to Nepal by more than 50 percent. Since
then, whether or not that pressure had ultimately been successful seemed
up in the air.

Indeed, Nepali officials seemed unwilling to discuss the problem at all,
though some work does still appear to be progressing behind the scenes.
An official at the US embassy, who requested anonymity, revealed that
Nepali officials have left open the possibility of resolving the issue
at a future date, perhaps when the Bhutani situation moves closer to a
resolution. “It’s no secret that Nepal is close to China and far from
the United States, and certainly this is a difficult position to be in,”
an embassy official noted. “So we are sensitive to Nepal’s concern in
this regard, and hope that in the future we can work something out.
There is no time limit on this: the offer doesn’t run out. This is a
group that we know and are concerned about, and we know that there needs
to be a resolution.”

Rough road
Despite the freeze in policy since 1989, the last few years have been
particularly difficult for Tibetan refugees in Nepal. In January 2005,
under King Gyanendra, the Nepali government shut down the Office of the
Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Its doors remain closed
even today. By the efforts of several naturalised Tibetan Nepali
citizens, the current government did briefly issue permission to open a
Tibetan Welfare Office, but terminated the office’s license within a
month. Likewise in an attempt to curry Chinese favour during a period of
increasing regional alienation for the Gyanendra regime, in October 2005
the king halted the issuing of exit permits to Tibetan refugees. Though
this practice was resumed in June 2006, after the change in government,
the halt temporarily stymied the roughly 2500 Tibetans who flee to India
via Nepal each year.

Officially, there are about 14,000 Tibetans living in Nepal. According
to Tibetan statistics, however, that number is closer to 20,000,
suggesting a group of Tibetans around 6000 strong living outside
official watch. Due to the fact that Tibetans who entered Nepal after
1989 are unable to settle down in the country, the US offer of
resettlement is said to be particularly aimed at those who do not have
legal identity papers, and who are considered vulnerable by the
Dharamsala government. In 1999, the government of Nepal started issuing
new Refugee Certificates to Tibetan refugees in Nepal, at a time when
there were still about 3000 Tibetan refugees on the waiting list. But
then the Nepali authorities suddenly stopped issuing the certificates,
for reasons that are still unclear. As such, this group is thought to
constitute the bulk of those who will receive priority in any eventual
resettlement process.

Who exactly that group will ultimately constitute has inevitably been
the fodder for significant anxiety over the past two years. In 1991, the
US government granted asylum to 1000 Tibetans from India and Nepal,
during which time several hundred Tibetans from Nepal left for the US
with exit permits and travel documents issued by the Nepali government.
The thinking now is that the number of individuals resettled at that
time was low enough not to ruffle too many Chinese feathers. But another
difference between the 1991 and 2007 situations has been the levels of
confusion over who could be chosen for resettlement. In 1991, all of the
candidates were chosen by a lottery system. This time, things seem
significantly less clear.

The Dharamsala government initially announced that the programme would
include former soldiers of the secretive, now defunct, CIA-backed
Mustang Tibetan Resistance Force and their families, as well as those
Tibetans in Nepal who did not have Refugee Certificates. Since then,
however, little of substance has shed much light on the subject, and
confusion and mounting frustration has instead pervaded Nepal’s Tibetan
communities. Bewilderment spiked last year, when a Tibetan leader in the
Kathmandu Valley publicly read out a list of names of possible
resettlement candidates – names that were not included on the list of
people without Refugee Certificates. But officials at the US embassy in
Kathmandu are forthright that they do not currently have a list of
either individuals or groups who will ultimately be included. Said one,
“The most vulnerable – and that means people who are most subject to
persecution and return to their homeland, the people who are in danger –
are the ones we try to help first … I can’t address any specific group
because to the best of my knowledge we have not yet gotten that far.”

Although there is dissension, the vast majority of Tibetans in Nepal
express a ready desire to resettle to the US. And as the resettlement
plans have remained vague, there has appeared a rising flood of hopeful
applicants. When Dharamsala first announced the plan, hundreds of
Tibetans from outside Nepal quickly filed into the country. They were
joined by Tibetans who had been living in more remote areas of Nepal,
who moved to Kathmandu in hopes of more readily throwing their hat in
the resettlement ring. There are also a large number of non-Tibetan
Nepali nationals, many of whom look and speak like Tibetans, who have
surreptitiously acquired Tibetan papers, and are hoping to take part in
any eventual resettlement.

For the moment, all of this has come to naught. The Nepal government’s
sudden refusal to grant the 5000 refugees with approval to resettle in
the US has been met with widespread condemnation.

Vice-president of the International Campaign of Tibet, Mary Beth Markey,
recently warned: “It is a shame that the Nepal government is brushing
aside this long history of friendship [between Tibetans and Nepalis] to
serve its taskmaster to the north.” A local Tibetan leader in the
Kathmandu Valley concurs: “We are really grateful to Nepal for letting
us live here, but we don’t enjoy equal rights and benefits with the
locals. We have been living under difficult circumstances for almost
forty years, and now the US government is giving us an opportunity to
seek a better life. I urge the Nepal government authorities to issue
exit permit to Tibetans, without coming under pressure from China”.
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