UN envoy shows support for Tibetan refugees in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : Tibetan refugees in Nepal, who feel increasingly vulnerable due to the growing Chinese influence on the republic’s government, have been heartened by the visit of a top American envoy to Nepal.

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US Under Secretary of State Maria Otero, who is also US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, visited the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu Sunday with the American Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, to talk with the Tibetan refugees, many of whom are awaiting for the clearance of their passage to India.

Some of the refugees who had newly arrived from Tibet spoke of the reasons why they chose to leave their homes in Tibet and face the perils of transit. They also said they were joyous in the anticipation of meeting with the Dalai Lama, their exiled leader who lives in Dharamshala in India, and for the freedoms they hoped to enjoy in India.

There are 172 new arrivals at the centre.

Otero also met with Tibetan community leaders to hear of the challenges they face in Nepal.

These include increasingly assertive actions by Chinese authorities in Nepal, including intrusion into Nepal’s sovereign territory to search for Tibetan refugees in transit, and interference by Chinese authorities in both Nepalese democratic institutions and legal processes.

Last year, under pressure from China Nepal’s police cracked down on the Tibetan refugees’ election in exile to choose a new government in Dharamshala and seized the ballot boxes.

Otero’s visit to Nepal is part of a trip to South Asia that included a visit to the Bylakuppe Tibetan settlement in south India Feb 8-9. In Nepal, she is also meeting government and UN officials.

The visit comes as both new and long-staying Tibetan refugees in the Himalayan republic feel increasingly exposed to Chinese influence in Nepal.

“Under Secretary Maria Otero expressed the United States’ continued support for the safety and welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and said she would carry their message back to Washington,” said Todd Stein, director of government relations at the International Campaign for Tibet.

“Her visit signals that concerns for Tibetans, both the refugees and vulnerable long-staying population, remain a key interest in US relations with Nepal.”

The Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu was established in the early 1990s in response to concern in the US Congress that Tibetans fleeing oppression needed urgent assistance and protection after a dangerous crossing through the high mountain passes that separate Tibet and Nepal.

The centre, funded by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has become a vital link in the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement”, between the Nepal government and the UNHCR.

As per the agreement, Tibetans are accorded safe transit through Nepal’s territory and are allowed to travel onward to India.

However, the Chinese government contends that Tibetans arriving in Nepal are illegal migrants and has sought their handover to Chinese authorities.

Although Nepal is prohibited by its obligations under international law from forcibly repatriating Tibetans across the border, there have been incidents of refoulement.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at [email protected])