World Refugee Survey 2009: Nepal
Nepal hosted 121,300 refugees at the end of 2008, 101,000 of them from Bhutan. The Bhutanese refugees were Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa whom the Government of Bhutan expelled in the early 1990s.
Roughly 20,000 were Tibetans who fled the Chinese invasion beginning in 1959.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also assisted 300 refugees and aslum seekers from 11 countries in Kathmandu.
There were numerous reports of Chinese officials capturing Tibetans attempting to enter Nepal along the China-Nepal border, as well as Nepalese authorities returning captured near the border by Chinese border authorities, and other reports described Nepalese border officials handing over Tibetans to Chinese authorities. The U.S. State Department reported the January arrest of 19 Tibetans, who Nepali officials reportedly beat before releasing them close to a Chinese border post. The refugees managed to reach the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center, but said Nepali police had told them they would be shot if they tried to reach Kathmandu. Publicly, however, the Government continued to offer safe transit to third countries (usually India) for Tibetans leaving China, and about 600 passed through the country in 2008.
Nepalese authorities cracked down on Tibetan refugees protesting against China in 2008, stating that Nepal would not allow protests against friendly countries. Especially in the early days of the protests, Human Rights Watch (HRW) witnessed Nepali police beating protestors with clubs, punching them, and kicking them. Between the beginning of the protests in March and July 18, HRW recorded more than 8,300 arrests of Tibetans (some individuals more than once) during protests. Female detainees reported being groped by police and struck in the groin with clubs, and police severly beat some detainees. Police also reportedly threatened to return detainees to China. Nepal released most without charging them.
The Nepali government detained three senior Tibetan refugee officials (two of them naturalized Nepali citizens) without charge in June, accusing them of involvement in anti-China activities. After a Supreme Court decision deemed their detention illegal, the Government released them in July.
In August, authorities detained nearly 1,400 Tibetans protesting the opening of the Beijing Olympics near the Chinese embassy for violating a Government ban on protests in the area.
In late August and early September, Nepal presented 132 Tibetans to UNHCR in September to determine if they were refugees. Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam claimed the country would no longer be able to bear the burden of hosting Tibetan refugees and that the Government would soon review existing laws and the prospect of granting them Nepali citizenship.
During the year, UNHCR registered 23 new asylum seekers. The Government began issuing identity cards to Bhutanese refugees in late 2007, and with assistance from UNHCR they had provided nearly 76,000 cards by the end of 2008. Tibetan refugees who arrived before 1990 held identity cards, but roughly 5,000 of their children were without documentation.
In March, the United States began to resettle Bhutanese refugees, planning to resettle 60,000 over the next five years. By year's end, more than 8,000 Bhutanese refugees had been resettled, including 7,500 to the United States and almost 400 to Australia.
Bhutanese refugees opposed to resettlement launched several attacks during the year, although violence within the camps declined after Nepal dispatched armed police to the camps in 2007. On two occasions, they attacked buses carrying refugees back from interviews with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), including a May incident in which nine men with sticks and rocks attacked a bus carrying 15 refugees, injuring two of them as well as the driver, and another in which assailants set fire to a bus. In June, assailants threw two explosive devices into the refugee waiting area and offices at an IOM building, damaging the structure but causing no injuries. Four people detonated a bomb in the Sanischare camp in August, again without injuries.
In March, a fire likely started by a kerosene lamp in Goldhap camp destroyed 1,200 huts and left 12,000 refugees homeless. Nepal offered $50,000 in relief to the refugees without homes, and the Red Cross provided tents and non-food items. UNHCR began rebuilding the Goldhap refugee camp in April with wider spaces between huts and flame-retardant thatched roofs.
Local authorities of the Morand and Sunsari districts prohibited refugees from entering or leaving the camps on Nepal's election day to prevent refugees from casting fraudulent votes. Security forces gradually restricted access to camps several days prior to the election before completely barring access on April 10, while threatening legal action if refugees were seen at polling places.
Some 70 Somali refugees who had been living in Nepal since 2005 demonstrated in Kathmandu in October, protesting the Government's non-recognition of their refugee status, their inability to work, and the heavy fines for overstaying if they try to leave Nepal. The refugees, many of whom were children, reported being trafficked into Nepal by agents in Mogadishu who told them they were going to Italy. UNHCR had already registered them as refugees and provided financial assistance, but the Government, claiming it is assessing the situation, had not yet accepted them as refugees.
In late 2008, officials arrested five refugees recognized by UNHCR for illegal entry, using false travel documents, or overstaying visas. The officials sentenced the refugees from one to ten years in prison, but released all five after UNHCR filed habeas corpus petitions on their behalf. At year's end, Nepal was holding around 70 Bhutanese refugees for crimes including theft, battery, and fraud.
The first of a planned 5,000 Bhutanese refugees departed to resettle in Canada in December, after Canada invested $1.3 million in a tuberculosis testing and treatment program. Citizenship and Immigration Canada also distributed pamphlets to counter negative rumors about Canada that had spread in the camps, including that Canada was too cold for women to give birth.
Law and Policy
Nepal is not party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and has no refugee law. Nepal's 1992 Immigration Act allows the Government to exempt "any class, group, nationality or race from any or all of [its] provisions." The 1958 Foreigners Act and administrative directives determine refugees' legal rights.
The Government grants refugee status prima facie to Bhutanese refugees and to Tibetans who arrived before 1990. It usually grants more recent Tibetan arrivals protection from refoulement as UNHCR assists them in reaching third countries, but has returned some or allowed China to capture them inside Nepal.
From 1989 to March 2007, UNHCR assessed the claims of other asylum seekers in Kathmandu and provided certificates to registered asylum seekers and refugees it recognized under its mandate. In March 2007, Nepal requested that UNHCR cease issuing documents to refugees and asylum seekers, and UNHCR suspended all refugee status determinations (RSDs). In October 2008, UNHCR began performing RSDs again but does not issue documents to refugees or asylum seekers.
Detention/Access to Courts
The 1990 Constitution provides that "No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws," that "No person shall be deprived of his personal liberty save in accordance with law," and extends most criminal procedure protections to all persons, with some exceptions for citizens of enemy states. It reserves for citizens, however, its specific protections against discrimination in the application of laws or other functions of the state on grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, or tribe. Generally, refugees have access to courts, including for civil matters, but only citizens have standing to challenge the constitutionality of a law before the Supreme Court.
Under Nepal's Immigration Act, authorities can imprison violators who cannot pay their fines, sentencing them to one day in prison for every 25 rupees (about $0.40) unpaid. The law allows the police to hold suspects for 25 days without a court appearance, but security forces occasionally hold prisoners longer and refugees have difficulty obtaining bail. UNHCR generally has access to detainees. Detainees can have lawyers and challenge their detention in the courts.
Since late 2007, the Government has issued identity cards to Bhutanese refugees. Tibetan refugees the Government recognized before 1990 also hold identity cards, but it has not issued cards to Tibetans who have turned 18 since 1990.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Nepal restricts Bhutanese refugees to seven camps in the Jhapa and Morang districts in the east. Camp rules require Bhutanese refugees to obtain prior permission and passes if leaving the camp for more than 24 hours and generally to return within a week. Refugees can, however, obtain renewable six-month passes for educational purposes. Authorities generally grant requests for passes but temporarily suspend ration cards if refugees are absent without permission for an extended period.
The 1958 Foreigners Act permits the Government to restrict the residence of foreigners and provides penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of 2,000 rupees ($26) for violations.
Refugees other than those from Bhutan and Tibet were not eligible for documents permitting international travel outside the purposes of resettlement or repatriation. Tibetans who were granted refugee status prior to 1990 can obtain travel documents with difficulty, but their children are not able to do so.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Refugees and asylum seekers do not have the right to work in Nepal and those who worked operated illegally. Camp rules restrict Bhutanese refugees from engaging in almost any income-generating activity aside from small cottage industries, such as making sanitary napkins, chalk, blankets, and jute roofing materials, although in practice authorities tolerate some small enterprises in the camps. Authorities also allow some illegal work where there are shortages, such as teaching in remote schools. The Government generally allows Tibetans who entered the country prior to 1990 to run small handicrafts in the informal sector, such as carpet weaving.
The 1990 Constitution reserves its protection of the right to engage in work, professions, trade, or industry, or to form unions, only to citizens. It also reserves the rights to acquire, own, sell, and otherwise dispose of property to citizens. Refugees lack all legal rights aside from being able to live in the country and must bribe officials to obtain business ownership, licenses, and complete most legal transactions.
The 1992 Labor Act heavily restricts the employment of foreigners, without exception for refugees. If no Nepali is available for a skilled post after national advertising, managers can apply to the Labor Department for permission to hire foreigners. After investigation, the Labor Department can grant two year permits but for no more than five years in total. Businesses must arrange to replace the foreigners by training Nepalis and, under the 1993 Labor Rules, lay off foreigners first. Nepal fines violators as much as 10,000 rupees (about $130) per violation and 100 rupees (about $1.30) per day in violation.
Public Relief and Education
UNHCR and the World Food Programme provide food and other aid to Bhutanese refugees in the camps, with the Government's cooperation. UNHCR provides monthly financial support to refugees in urban areas, as well as assisting with health care and education costs.
UNHCR provides education to Bhutanese refugees in the camps through grade 8. Caritas and other non-governmental organizations extended education through grade 10 for all and partial support for grades 11 and 12. Education is compulsory for Bhutanese children, and counselors visit the parents of any child who misses more than seven consecutive days of school to seek an explanation. The Tibetan community, with help from international donors, operates schools for Tibetan children. Refugee children in urban areas attend Nepali primary schools, with UNHCR paying the school fees.
The Government did not include refugees in its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, and international donors did not include them in any development projects.