The Nepalese government, under pressure from China, has sharply constricted the rights and movements of Tibetan refugees living within its borders.
POKHARA, NEPAL – Karma Tsedar, the son of Tibetan refugees, applied for a driver’s license in 2008.
After he filled out an application at the Department of Transport Management, a department official asked him to provide proof of citizenship or a refugee identity card. Possessing neither, Tsedar was told to produce some other proof of identity. Tsedar returned to the department with his father’s refugee identity card, which lists him among his father’s offspring. Officials initially declined to honor the card as validation of Tsedar’s refugee status.
“My has no identification. What is
going to happen to her future? Her education,
her career and her life – everything will depend
on her identification, and that she does not have.”
Phurbu Dambul, 44, Tibetan refugee living in Nepal
Only after he visited the office repeatedly did the agency finally accept the father’s documentation as proof of Tsedar’s legal status. “Nepali people do not have to go through this hassle,” Tsedar says.
Although born in Nepal, Tsedar is not a citizen of the country. As the son of refugees, he is classified as a refugee; he will never be eligible for Nepalese citizenship. His refugee status makes him eligible to apply for college and most private-sector jobs, but his lack of a refugee identity card of his own hinders his ability to get ahead.
Tsedar, 27, lives in a small, three-room house with his parents at the Tashi Palkheil Tibetan Refugee Settlement. Surrounded by green hills, the settlement is the largest of four Tibetan refugee camps in Pokhara, a densely populated city at the foot of the Annapurna massif, part of the Himalayan mountain range.
Some 800 refugees live in 300 homes on lanes so narrow they can accommodate only motorbikes and small cars.
Tsedar’s parents have lived at the settlement ever since they fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1962. When they arrived, the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs issued them refugee identity cards that establish their identities and legal status.
But Tsedar, who was born in the settlement and has lived his entire life in Nepal, has never obtained a refugee identity card; he is merely listed on his father’s card. As a result, he lacks the identification he needs to prove his legal status, which has deprived him of many opportunities, he says.
“I work as a waiter to sustain myself,” he says. “I cannot pursue a profession because I have no legal documents.”
Without a refugee identity card, Tsedar cannot travel outside the country, he says. He cannot open a bank account or apply for scholarships. “I studied and worked hard, and I cannot find a good job because I am a Tibetan refugee,” he says. “Even educated Tibetan youth are not getting jobs because we have no citizenship.”
Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation of their country have sought refuge in neighboring Nepal since the late 1950s. Over the past two decades, Nepal, under pressure from the Chinese government, has cut back on services it provides Tibetan refugees. Among other things, the government has stopped issuing refugee identity cards. It renews the cards of early refugees each year, but the children and grandchildren of those refugees cannot obtain cards of their own.
Without proof of legal status, many younger Tibetan refugees cannot pursue higher studies, find permanent jobs or even open bank accounts. Tibetans launched an uprising nine years after Chinese armed forces invaded their country. When China cracked down on the rebels, thousands of Tibetans fled to Nepal and India.
Nepal became a permanent refuge to many Tibetans. It also became a transit point for Tibetans traveling to Dharamshala, a city in northern India where the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and his followers established a government-in-exile. About 20,000 Tibetan refugees now live in a dozen camps in Nepal, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Nepalese government does not know how many refugees live within its borders, says Shesh Narayan Paudel, undersecretary of the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs and deputy coordinator of the National Unit for the Coordination of Refugee Affairs. When the government last conducted a census of the Tibetan community in 1993, it recorded 12,540 refugees scattered across 21 districts.
Initially the Nepalese government issued refugee identity cards that established the exiles’ legal status, Paudel says. It ended that practice in 2002. The government does not have a record of the number of cards it has issued to Tibetan refugees, and it has no plans to issue more. This is because the Chinese government has pressured Nepal to stop providing protection to Tibetan refugees, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says in a Skype audio interview. Human Rights Watch is an independent international organization that conducts research and advocacy on global human rights issues.
When China hosted the Olympics in 2008, Tibetans and their supporters used the international spotlight to protest China’s occupation of their homeland. They also conducted peaceful protests all over the world, including in China and Nepal. In response, China tightened its control over the Tibetan region and pressured Nepal to restrict the rights of the many Tibetan refugees living within its borders, Ganguly says. Since then, Nepal has signed several security agreements with China, intensified border security cooperation, enforced restrictions on public demonstrations by the Tibetan community, and implemented surveillance programs, she says. On politically sensitive dates, large numbers of Nepalese armed police are deployed in Tibetan neighborhoods to prevent refugees from holding demonstrations.
“The Nepali authority clamped down on Tibetans in Nepal,” Ganguly says. “Peaceful celebrations of Tibetans were closely monitored. They are being denied their fundamental freedoms.” Recognizing that Nepal lacked the means to step up security and did not have a compelling national interest in curbing the activities of the Tibetan community, which has strong historical ties to Nepal, Beijing has significantly stepped up its economic and diplomatic engagement with the country, Ganguly says. Nepal now says it cannot allow “anti-China activities,” she says. However, Nepal’s policy of prohibiting peaceful political protest violates well-established international human rights law.
The president of the National Human Rights Foundation, an independent organization engaged in human rights advocacy work in Nepal, agrees. “The government of Nepal has stopped issuing refugee identity cards to Tibetan refugees because they are under pressure from the Chinese government,” Bhawani Prasad Kharel says in a phone interview. “The Chinese government does not want Tibetans to get out of Tibet. They do not want Tibetans to get refugee status anywhere in the world.” The lack of refugee identity cards has made life especially hard for the offspring of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
Phurbu Damdul, a 44-year-old resident of the Tashi-Ling Tibetan Refugee Settlement, says he and his family live in a legal limbo because he was visiting relatives in India when Nepali officials last updated settlement residents’ refugee identity cards in 1994. His siblings’ names and dates of birth were added to his mother’s refugee identity card, granting them legal recognition, but Damdul’s name was excluded because he was not present to establish his residency at the camp and his relationship to his mother.
As a result, Damdul and his two children, a 6-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, lack documentation of their refugee status. “Children born to Tibetan refugees in Nepal are refugees,” Kharel says. “They are not given Nepali citizenship. Neither do they get any benefits.” Damdul’s wife does not have a refugee identity card either. The lack of such documentation leaves the family vulnerable, he says.
“Anything could happen to us because we do not have a legal document,” Damdul says. “We can get arrested and detained and be harassed by the police.” The lack of an identity card also prevents him from obtaining permanent employment, he says. “What can I do without a legal identity?” Damdul asks despairingly.
He operates a small roadside restaurant near the settlement that he says does not produce enough income to sustain his family. Lacking citizenship status, refugees in Nepal cannot get government, military or police jobs, Kharel says. Banks and some other businesses also require job applicants to be Nepali citizens. Refugees can apply for most private-sector jobs, but they are required to provide proof of their legal status.
“Many refugees work in small restaurants or small-scale cottage industries where they do not have to show legal documents,” he says. Since 2010, some colleges and universities have also started asking students to show proof of legal status when enrolling, Kharel says. Some refugees present their parents’ identification cards as proof of their status, but college authorities often refuse to honor those documents. And refugees born since Nepalese authorities stopped issuing cards and adding descendants’ names to refugee cards have no legal standing, he says. Some refugees who have identification cards say the legal documents do not make a huge difference in their lives. Dharkyi Tsamchoe, 78, has been living at the Tashi-Ling Tibetan Refugee Settlement since she fled to Nepal in 1956.
“We are refugees,” she says. “We are treated differently. Having a refugee card does not change that. Anything could happen to me, and having a refugee card will not matter.” Tsamchoe’s son and daughter have been added to her refugee identity card, but having their names on that document has not brought them any benefits, she says. The Nepalese government annually renews refugee identity cards and provides travel documents to Tibetan refugees traveling through Nepal en route to India and other countries, Paudel says. The government is doing what it can for Tibetan refugees within its budget constraints.
“We work for refugees and treat them on humanitarian grounds,” he says. “We have our limitations, but we are doing our best to provide better facilities to refugees.” Ganguly says Nepal, whose new Constituent Assembly is drafting a new constitution, is in a unique position to establish the rights of refugees. “Nepal is drafting its constitution, and this an opportunity to incorporate international human rights standards,” she says. “The constitution should guarantee freedom of speech and assembly for all residents, and any restrictions set out in domestic law should not place limitations on peaceful exercise of political speech by anyone, including Tibetan refugees.”
Tsamchoe does not want to remain in Nepal. “I spend all my days here praying that I will return to my country, a free Tibet,” she says. “I imagine Tibet like when I was a little girl, peaceful.” But refugees who are trying to put down roots and build new lives in Nepal are hampered by their inability to prove their legal status. “My daughter has no identification,” Damdul says. “What is going to happen to her future? Her education, her career and her life – everything will depend on her identification, and that she does not have.”
GPJ translated some interviews from Tibetan and Nepali.