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Nepal Deports 18 Tibetans to China: Move Could Cut Off Refugee Route to India

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/06/01; June 1, 2003.]

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 1, 2003; Page A16

BEIJING, May 31 -- Nepal deported 18 Tibetans, including four children, to China today, breaking a long-standing policy of handing refugees over to U.N. authorities and setting a precedent that could cut off the primary route for Tibetans trying to reach the Dalai Lama's exile government in India.

The deportation occurred despite the protests of the United States and European nations, as well as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Witnesses said the Tibetans shouted and cried for help as Nepalese police in Katmandu loaded them into an unmarked minibus this morning, according to Wangchuk Tsering, the Dalai Lama's representative to Nepal.

A Tibetan woman threw herself in front of the minibus in an attempt to stop it, but police dragged her away, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibetan studies scholar who watched the minibus cross the Chinese border in Kodari at 12:30 p.m.

Barnett said the Nepalese police officers on the bus then disembarked and walked back across the border carrying handcuffs and ropes that apparently had been used to bind the refugees. "The police spoke to us and said they were sorry and just doing their jobs," Barnett said by telephone.

Nepal occasionally forces Tibetan refugees it captures near the border to return to China, but it has never publicly deported Tibetans who make it past the border area. Instead, the government usually transfers them to the UNHCR, which runs a center for Tibetan refugees in Katmandu and resettles about 1,500 Tibetans every year in India.

"We fear for the immediate safety of these 18 Tibetans, but we are also concerned that China will be able to routinely remove Tibetans from Nepalese jails. This is a terrifying precedent," said John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet. He urged the world "to ensure that Nepal does not close itself off to refugees seeking safe passage to India."

Ackerly said Tibetans caught trying to cross the border by Chinese police are typically detained for weeks or months as they are interrogated and tortured to determine if they had political motives for leaving. China contends that Tibet is part of its territory, but many Tibetans believe that Tibet should be an independent country.

It was unclear what prompted the Nepalese government to abandon its usual practice and deport the 18 refugees, who were detained in mid-April. Tsering described them as "ordinary Tibetans," ages 13 to 30. He said that in addition, three children ages 6 to 9 who were detained with the group were placed in UNHCR custody.

The deportation comes during a political crisis in Nepal that resulted in the resignation of the prime minister on Friday. At the same time, envoys of the Dalai Lama are in Beijing on a "confidence building" mission, and officials in China opposed to a reconciliation with the Tibetan Buddhist leader may have arranged the refugee incident to undermine the talks.

The deportation might also be linked to Beijing's displeasure with Nepal's celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest. China had asked the world to stop calling the mountain Everest and instead use the Chinese name, Qomolangma, and was deeply embarrassed when Nepal and other nations ignored the request.

China has been steadily exerting greater influence over Nepal in recent years, demanding stricter limits on the political activities of the 35,000 Tibetan refugees who live there in exchange for economic aid and support for Nepal's fight with Maoist rebels.

"This is an extraordinary failure for the UNHCR," Barnett said. "The Nepalese have been moving in this direction for months, but the UNHCR was unprepared."

Phone calls to the UNHCR office in Katmandu went unanswered, and there was no immediate statement from the Nepalese government. But China's Foreign Ministry said the Tibetans had been repatriated in line with international law. "These people are Chinese citizens," a spokesman told the Reuters news agency. "They will be dealt with according to law."

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