Monday, August 8, 2011

Refugees in Nepal

This Report from TibetInfoNet points to a serious issue for the Tibetan Diaspora and more particularly for the new Prime Minister of the Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala: the large scale illegal immigration of Tibetans in direction of European countries and the US.
In the case mentioned by TibetInfoNet, the 'refugees' might have been Nepalis, but in several other cases, the illegal migrants are 'genuine' Tibetans.
Last week, IANS reported that
"a 22-year-old woman of Tibetan origin, suspected to be a refugee living in Bangalore, has been arrested after she tried to obtain a fake Nepali passport. Police also arrested three Nepali men from Nuwakot district for helping her obtain the passport fraudulently.
Besides the woman, who had obtained a Nepali passport in the name of Chhintal Tamang, police arrested 66-year-old Bhakta Bahadur Tamang, who had feigned to be her father, K.P. Thapaliya, who had signed the documents as a referee, and Devendra Neupane."
IANS mentioned the case reported by TibetInfoNetwork 
The arrest of a Tibetan refugee seeking to get a fake Nepali passport comes less than a week of two more Tibetan being arrested at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport while trying to leave the country on fake Nepali passports.Nepal's Central Investigation Bureau arrested 15-year-old Jayang Tenzin, and his sister, Tsering Lhamo, 12, around Tuesday midnight while they were seeking to board a Qatar Airways flight to Turkey with other members of their family who have been living in the US under the status of Tibetan refugees. Also travelling with the youngsters were their parents Jyamba and Chode, both of whom had valid US visas, and a younger brother who is a US citizen by birth.
Passports were fake but were stamped with genuine US visas. 
In this particular case, the 'Tibetans' might have been Nepalis with forged 'Tibetan' documents, but in several other cases, Tibetans have used fake passports to leave Nepal. 
The question is: do they have a choice today?
Another example is cited by IANS: Zigmey Lhanzom, a Tibetan woman arrived in Chicago in 1997. She told a US court that her parents were resistance fighters who opposed the Chinese invasion of Tibet and subsequently had to flee to India. She grew up in the family of an uncle, who was arrested by the Chinese while she was sent to a labour camp for taking part in anti-China demonstrations. Lhanzom admitted in court that she escaped to Nepal and then obtained a fake Nepali passport to go to the US.
In the meantime, Thinley Lama, the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal was arrested by Nepal Police from his office, the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office (TRWC). 
His crime?
Earlier in the day, he had organised a press conference: "This press conference has been organised to clarify and give correct and factual information on the news of alleged Tibetan refugees in Nepal that has been reported in the media recently and also to bring forward the problems faced by Tibetan refugees in Nepal,” he said.
It referred to the case mentioned above.
TRWC affirmed that after investigation it was found that the Tibetan Reception Centre in Kathmandu had no records of the two, concluding that "the letters obtained from the siblings were concocted."

The background of the problem is of course the quasi take-over of Nepal by the Chinese authorities and the impossibility for  genuine Tibetan refugees to get valid papers (the confused situation is used by Nepali illegal migrants).
Remember a Wikileaks cable which stated that the Chinese 'reward' the Nepal Police to get rid of the Tibetans. 
Unless India takes a stronger position, the situation is not going to improved soon on the 'take-over' front. 
We can only hope that the new Kalon Tripa with his legal background will look into the issue and find a temporary solution with the concerned authorities. 
It is in the interest of the Tibetans and the image that they want to project of their nation.

A Report from TibetInfoNet
A confusing incident which occurred recently at Kathmandu airport, Nepal, and involved the arrest of two minors for alleged immigration offences, highlights how an arcane local bureaucracy, pressure from the Chinese embassy and the strong eagerness of some Tibetans and Nepalis to leave the country have generated a quagmire of corruption and illegality. At the root of the problem is the ambiguous legal situation maintained by Nepal's government towards Tibetan refugees. It seems that only the resumption of the registration of Tibetan refugees in Nepal and a regularization of their status is likely to settle the problem.
On 26 July 2011, two teenage siblings were arrested at Tribhuvan International Airport as they were boarding a flight to the US for allegedly using illegally obtained Nepali passports. The Nepali daily, Republica, reported that the two had been travelling with their parents, who are Tibetan refugees based in the US, and their passports were authentic. The report quoted an unnamed official as saying that the use of tampered Nepali passports is "very common" among refugees but the possession of authentic Nepali passports is "something never seen before". Alongside these passports, the two teenagers were carrying Tibetan refugee documents and a letter issued by the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office in Kathmandu identifying them as Tibetan refugees. They also carried what a Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) officer quoted in the report called "secret documents" in sealed official envelopes from the US embassy in Nepal, and labeled: "To be submitted to the US Immigration Office upon arrival at the airport for entry into the United States of America". However, further investigations led to a surprising result.
Research by TibetInfoNet has revealed that the family is not in fact Tibetan but Nepali from Lo-Mustang, a region bordering Tibet. Nepali citizens in regions like Solu Khumbu, Helambu, Manang, Mustang, Dolpo, Limi and others share many cultural traits with Tibetans; they are followers of Tibetan Buddhism and they speak languages closely akin to Tibetan. For over a decade and a half, a sizeable population of Nepali citizens from these regions have reached Western countries, in particular the US, and successfully applied for asylum by claiming to be Tibetans(1).
In the current case, it appears that the parents had already reached the US some years ago, very probably by following the usual procedure which consists of leaving Nepal and entering the US on Nepali passports, to which they are fully entitled as Nepali citizens. They then dispose of these passports and apply for asylum under a Tibetan identity, just before their visas expire (as they would become illegal after that). Technically, they are economic migrants and would have no chance of remaining in the US under their true identities. Professing to be Tibetans, however, promises the best chances of success. This is because, even in the case of weak asylum applications, no developed country, as a matter of policy, forcibly returns Tibetans to China (the only possible destination of deportation, as Tibetans are legally considered Chinese citizens and their last port of departure is unknown), knowing that they risk incarceration, degrading treatment and even torture on reaching there.
Already settled in the US, the parents of the arrested teenagers in Kathmandu apparently intended for their children to join them from Nepal. Many migrants to western countries temporarily leave their children in the custody of relatives and are reunited with them later, once they have obtained a permanent status and reached a stable situation in their country of choice. However, with their new identity as Tibetan refugees, the parents faced a legal conundrum well known to authentic Tibetans. In order to get asylum in the US, their children must have documentation backing their Tibetan refugee status, however Nepal's administrative practices will have prevented them from leaving the country under this status.
In theory, Tibetan refugees who are legal resident in Nepal can exit the country, but for that they have to follow a complicated procedure. In the first place, they must produce a formal invitation from a person in the country they wish to visit. Then they need to obtain a recommendation letter from the Village Development Committee (VDC) or the municipality where they reside. With these documents and their refugee registration card, commonly referred to as 'RC'(2), they can then apply to the relevant Nepali authorities for a Travel Document (TD), which is handed over to them on deposit of their RC as a security (the RC is returned to them once they return to Nepal and hand over the TD). Finally, they must apply for an Exit Permit (EP) from the Home Ministry. Given Nepal's notoriously slow bureaucracy, the universality of corruption and the dearth of sound legal advice, this procedure is largely unworkable in practice and encourages 'short cut' solutions and bribery.
But most importantly, this legal approach to exiting Nepal requires the Tibetan applicant to produce an RC that proves he or she is a legal resident of Nepal in the first place. In most cases, however, this is impossible, as Nepal has not been issuing RCs to Tibetans – including the special document for minors - since the late 1990s(3). As a result, even Tibetans who should be legal residents in Nepal, for instance the offspring of those in possession of an RC, are forced to reside there illegally, or more exactly, in a legal limbo(4). Consequently, most Tibetans who want to go abroad from Nepal, be it for traveling or permanently, have no other option than to illegally acquire Nepali passports or Travel Documents. Evidently, this is also the case with some Nepali citizens who leave Nepal to apply for asylum abroad under a fake Tibetan identity.
In the case of this Mustangi family, both youths successfully applied for visas to the US on their Nepali passports and were thus exiting Nepal legally(5). However, in order to enter the US as Tibetan refugees, the youths needed to carry documents identifying them as such as well as an entry permit for the US (i.e. the sealed official envelopes identified by the Nepali Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) officer as "secret documents" mentioned above). These were obtained by submitting illicitly procured papers to the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office in Kathmandu, namely Green Books (the internal identity document of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India) and recommendation letters from a private Tibetan welfare association in Kathmandu. The serial numbers for these Green Books later turned out not to match the records in Dharamsala, and the recommendation letters have now also turned out to be fabrications too. The entry letters for the US were then issued on the basis of a confirmation ltter from the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office.
Where the plan failed for the family in question was when a member of an illegal immigration syndicate, also a Nepali, was arrested by police and disclosed a full list of his customers, leading to the last minute arrest of the teenagers after check in, but before boarding their flight. Ironically, the youths were detained on the basis that they were believed to be Tibetan refugees holding illicitly acquired Nepali passports, while in fact they were Nepali nationals carrying illicitly acquired Tibetan refugee documents. Although fraudulent in nature, technically, it is unclear as to whether these deeds are illegal, since Tibetan exile papers are informal and hence carry no legal weight.
Following the announcement of the arrests at Tribhuvan International Airport, sections of the Nepali press have increased coverage of putative and real transgressions of Nepali immigration laws and regulations by Tibetans, often insinuating that a 'foreign hand' – in this case the US – has somehow been disrespectful toward Nepali sovereignty in the affair. The media ignore the fact that it is Nepal's handling of the refugee issue, which is at odds with international practices, and Nepal's rampant corruption and continuous political uncertainty that have created the situation in the first place. In addition, the press tends to brush over the fact that Nepalis, both as illicit immigrants and operators of illegal immigration syndicates, play a crucial role in this situation. The case of the Mustangi family is not isolated; in another recent case, for instance, five Nepalis bearing both Tibetan refugee documents and Nepali passports were reported by the German Embassy to police and later arrested.
Nepalis taking up Tibetan identities to apply for asylum in the US or elsewhere set and keep in motion the cycle by which Tibetans leave Nepal on tampered Nepali passports. As mentioned before, Nepalis who take up Tibetan identities for asylum purposes get rid of their Nepali passports upon reaching the West. But instead of trashing them, most sell the papers to illegal immigration syndicates who then bring the passports back to Nepal and 'recycle' them by altering the original documents and selling them on at high prices to Tibetans intent on leaving Nepal. The system can only work when there is a steady inflow of fresh, authentic Nepali passports into the circuit.
The influence of the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu in the handling of Tibetan refugees' affairs is often mentioned. There is little doubt that the Chinese embassy is involved in a continuous effort to contain Tibetan exiles in Nepal and that it has, up until now, not been keen on making their lives any easier. However, bureaucratic procedures like those for Tibetan refugees legally resident in Nepal (i.e. owners of RCs) attempting to obtain travel documentation were established many years ago, at a time when Chinese influence in Nepal was very limited. Such procedures reflect just how sensitive the Nepali authorities are towards 'alien' residents, also reflected in Nepal's comparatively strict visa policy for other foreigners, including to an extent, Chinese.
The rationale and practical effects of the policies regarding Tibetan refugees is questionable. For example, the exit procedures for Tibetans has, for several years, blocked the implementation of a US project to take 5,000 Tibetans to America, a significant share of the Tibetan population in Nepal, as Nepali authorities have not been issuing the necessary Exit Permits. On the other hand, the concentration of Tibetan refugees in Nepal is blamed by both China and Nepal as a disruptive factor in the relationship between the two countries. If that is so, one could logically expect that a significant decrease of the Tibetan population in Nepal would be in the best interest of all parties involved. Obviously, Tibetan refugees' issues in Nepal are not handled particularly rationally by either of the two countries. How this could change remains to be seen, but there are signs that some new developments, positive or negative, could occur. Speaking at a function for the 60th anniversary of the 'Peaceful Liberation of Tibet' on 14 July 2011, China's new Ambassador in Kathmandu, Yang Houlan, said that "The Chinese embassy in Nepal will put the well-being of Tibetans in Nepal in mind (...) and make efforts to safeguard the legal rights and interests of overseas Tibetans". The exact meaning of this sentence might become apparent in future developments in Nepal.

1: In the US, in particular in New York, there is a strong community of Nepalis from Nepal's Himalayan region. Because of the close cultural connection, most of them live in close proximity to Tibetans. They often participate in religious ceremonies and functions, like celebrations for the birthday of the Dalai Lama, and some of them are even involved in political events; something hardly imaginable in Nepal itself. Some pick up the Tibetan language quickly and become more proficient in it than in their own mother tongue, as many grew up in a Nepali speaking environment.
2: Minors below the age of 16 have another registration document.
3: There are a few cases in which RCs were issued recently but these must be regarded as special cases or the result of bribery.
4: Note that the case of Tibetans who have recently arrived from Tibet is different. Under the 'Gentleman's Agreement', these are normally issued a document by the UNHCR as well as an Indian visa and are obliged to proceed to India.
5: It is unclear why the children's passports were issued in Sindhupalchowk district, situated between the Kathmandu valley and the Tibetan border, instead of in their native district of Mustang. This is possibly due to the children residing temporarily with their guardians in Sindhupalchowk, pending their continuing journey to the US.

No comments: