Decline in refugee numbers as China and Nepal tighten security on border
TIN News Update
2 January 2002
Border security on both sides of the Tibetan-Nepalese border has been stepped up in the last few weeks, leading to a significant decline in the numbers of Tibetans arriving in exile. More Tibetans usually escape from Tibet during the winter months than at any other time and many are currently attempting to travel to teachings by the Dalai Lama in India later this month. An official Chinese report claimed recently that 2,500 Tibetans have been caught in Tibet in the past eight months trying to cross the border either into or out of Tibet. Security measures have been stepped up on the Nepalese side of the border as a result of China's continuing influence regarding the issue of Tibetans passing through Nepal as well as the current state of emergency in Nepal imposed by the government in order to counter the activities of Maoist guerrilla forces.
The number of Tibetans escaping into exile normally increases in the winter months, particularly in November, December and January. During 2001, however, the number of Tibetans who arrived in exile was approximately half that of the equivalent period over the past five years. Roland Weil, Protection Officer of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, told TIN: "Approximately 2,500 Tibetan refugees arrive in Nepal every year. The total annual figure for 2001 is likely to be well under 2,000. The safety of Tibetans crossing the mountains into Nepal is increasingly uncertain, partly due to the risks they face on arrival in Nepal, and also because many guides have been arrested over the past year." The decline in numbers of Tibetans arriving to transit through Nepal is particularly notable since many Tibetans from Tibet were expected to attend the Kalachakra teachings (a traditional Buddhist ceremony) by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, northern India, at the end of January. The Chinese authorities are aware that many Tibetans may be seeking to leave Tibet to attend this ceremony, which may have led to further restrictions being imposed. TIN reported last week that there has been a marked increase in deportations of Tibetan refugees from Nepal, with at least 15 Tibetans known to have been repatriated from Nepalese border areas since 25 November 2001. (See "New increase in deportations of Tibetans from Nepal", TIN News Update, 24 December 2001 http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/nu241201.htm. )
According to Xinhua, security personnel on the Chinese side of the border have stepped up patrols in the Nangpa-la area as part of the "Strike Hard" campaign (Xinhua, 16 October 2001). The report stated that in the eight months since February, police working in the border areas "tracked and apprehended more than 2,500 people trying to cross the border". This figure could be exaggerated in the interests of local officials and in order to serve Chinese propaganda purposes. It would include Tibetans returning to Tibet from exile and Tibetans detained in border areas without official permits. Xinhua reported: "During the Strike Hard campaign, officers and men of the Tibetan border patrol units have had to brave freezing conditions and extreme discomfort in order to carry out their duties of preserving stability in the border regions of the Motherland. As a crossing point, Nangpa-la mountain pass has always been a 'golden route' for people trying to steal across the border. Patrolling the mountain pass at Nangpa-la is a duty that has to be carried out every night by the officers and men of the unit and involves a two-hour walk from the unit's temporary station to Nangpa-la. Wearing leather hats and thick padded greatcoats, they have to wade through three waist-deep streams and traverse two mountains that are snow-capped even in summer."
The Nangpa pass (Tibetan: Nangpa-la) is one of the four main entry points from Tibet into Nepal - the others are Humla, Mustang, Dram (Khasa in Nepalese and Zhangmu in Chinese). A new check-point was set up on the Nangpa-la pass last year, approximately two kilometres from the border on the Chinese-Tibetan side. A Tibetan who was travelling earlier this year to Nepal through the border county of Tingri (Ch: Dingri) reported that officials financially rewarded local people for providing information on Tibetans suspected of planning to escape across the Nangpa-la. The Kathmandu Post reported three weeks ago that Chinese security forces were on "high alert" due to the current state of emergency in Nepal. According to the Nepalese newspaper, an unnamed security official said that Chinese officials have increased security measures along the Nepal-China border because the Nepalese government has officially designated the Maoist groups currently active in Nepal as "terrorists". Chinese security personnel are now keeping close watch on Nepalese people who cross the border into Tibet, the official said, also stating that Nepalese and Chinese officials had made an agreement to cooperate in "containing the terrorism" in the Tatopani area (12 December 2001).
A Westerner travelling from Tibet to Nepal overland two weeks ago said that the journey from the border areas of Nepal to Kathmandu took twice as long as usual due to extra security check-points resulting from the state of emergency in Nepal. Roland Weil from the UNHCR told TIN:
"Naturally with the imposition of the state of emergency in Nepal there has been an increase in security in border areas, including increased checks on identity of people passing through these regions. So Tibetans travelling without legal papers are therefore at increased risk of being taken into custody and not allowed to proceed to Kathmandu."
According to the UNHCR, the Nepalese government stopped granting legal refugee status to Tibetans who had arrived from Tibet after December 1989 onwards. The Nepalese government, the UNHCR and the Tibetan government in exile expect Tibetans who have arrived in Nepal to continue through to India after a stay at the UNHCR reception centre in Kathmandu. Nepal's legislation on immigration makes no distinction between foreigners and asylum seekers, nor does it make any specific provision for refugees. Both foreigners and asylum seekers arriving in Nepal are considered illegal immigrants if they fail to comply with Article 3 (1) of the Nepalese Immigration Act (1992), which states: "No foreigner is allowed to enter or stay in the Kingdom of Nepal without a visa". It is rare for Tibetans entering Nepal to have a visa or any legal papers. It has become increasingly difficult for Tibetans from central Tibet, particularly Lhasa, to obtain passports in recent years, although it is still possible for them to do so if they have good connections with well-placed officials or are able to afford bribes to pass onto a "middleman" who can obtain access to officials. A Tibetan from Lhasa who is now in exile told TIN: "All applicants for passports and visas are screened for their background and present loyalty to China. Moreover, participation and support for the Tibetan cause is the deciding factor; one family member [with a record] is sufficient to create problems for the entire family."
China aims to make a wide-ranging assessment of border controls as part of its commitment to membership of the World Trade Organisation. Recent reports broadcast on Chinese television indicate that the authorities are aiming to make travelling within and beyond China easier for certain categories of travellers, such as businesspeople. However there is no evidence that the new moves are likely to lead to decreased travel restrictions for most Tibetans.
China and Nepal strengthen economic and political ties China has supported the Nepalese government's stance against Maoist groups in recent weeks. The Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Wu Congyong said on Thursday 20 December 2001: "Many people ask us about [the Maoist insurgents] just because they use the name of Mao. But there is no connection between them and us at any level." Wu Congyong also ruled out the possibility of the Maoists from Nepal finding a safe haven on Chinese territory (Hindustan Times, 20 December, 2001). When asked by the same newspaper whether Nepal would emerge "as a centre for the Tibetan freedom movement", Wu said: "We appreciate Nepal for its constant support to us on the issues of Tibet, Taiwan and human rights. There is no area where China is unhappy with Nepal."
Nepal and China have increasingly important trade links, and in November both countries developed their neighbourly relationship further by signing a Memorandum of Understanding, according to which Nepal will become the first south Asian country to be enlisted as a Chinese outbound tourist destination. Chinese Tourism Minister He Guangwei, who visited Nepal at the end of November, said that he hoped that both China and Nepal would benefit from the arrangement and that Nepalese tourists would also visit China.
Note: Recent photographs of the "Friendship Bridge" marking the border between Tibet and Nepal can be viewed at TIN's website at: