June 6, 2016

By Rinzin Dorjee

Boudhanath area in Kathmandu where a lot of Tibetans currently live. The influx of large number of refugees from Tibet has seen the construction of over 50 Tibetan Gompas (Monasteries) around the Boudha stupa (Tibetan: བྱ་རུང་ཁ་ཤོར།)

Boudhanath area in Kathmandu where a lot of Tibetans currently live. The influx of large number of refugees from Tibet has seen the construction of over 50 Tibetan Gompas (Monasteries) around the Boudha stupa (Tibetan: བྱ་རུང་ཁ་ཤོར།)

It has been three weeks since I came to Kathmandu, and I have managed to meet in person and interview in total 23 Tibetans in different locations including heavily Tibetan populated areas such as Boudhanath, Jawalakhel, Thamel and Swayambhunath, and less dense areas such as Pharping and Trivedi. A couple of the interviews and correspondences also took place in other places such as Narayani and Dhulikhel. I also had the opportunity to meet Tibetan students/youth at different Tibetan schools (including Srongtsen Boarding School and Namgyal School in Boudhanath), and Nepalese colleges. I also met with Tibetan students currently participating in the daily programs of EduLift, a registered non-profit educational initiative in Boudhanath.

My fieldwork in the aforementioned locations in Kathmandu consisted mostly of observational research and conversations over tea/coffee/dinner. In order to be as accurate as possible in my note taking, I have requested most participants to write their quotes directly on an A4 sheet that I can keep. These quotes—quite interestingly in three different languages: Nepali, Tibetan, and English—provide insights regarding their background, their preferred language for day-to-day use, and the extent to which they have integrated into their host societies.

The view of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetan refugees living here, it is second only to Boudhanath.

The view of Kathmandu from Swayambhunath. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetan refugees living here, it is second only to Boudhanath.

I have also taken the liberty of checking for statistical and historical evidence reported online through the United Nations Nepal Information Platform, International Campaign for Tibet, and Human Rights Watch when the participants refer to specific events during conversations.

I keep referring to these open-ended interviews as “conversations” because that’s how they played out in the field. Unlike formal interviews that are generally more structured, these “conversations” revolve around their personal narratives and range from an hour to three hours.

Due to the personal nature of these conversations, I am currently pondering changing the academic style of my writing (that I have gotten used to at Duke) for my final write-up to reflect and convey the narratives I have collected in the most honest and intimate way possible.

A lot of these conversations are focused on the lack of documentation that make Tibetan refugees vulnerable to harassment by Nepalese police and officials. By document, they refer to RC (Refugee Identity Card), which a lot of the Tibetan youth do not possess. Even with an RC, they do not have fundamental rights including freedom of speech and assembly, let alone the right to own property, travel freely domestically or internationally, or participate in political and cultural activities (such as celebrating the birthday of the Dalai Lama).

Based on the personal narratives of the Tibetans I have met with so far, I have categorized today’s update into two subtopics. Even though I have selected 1-2 interviews here, I have used the notes taken from all of my interviews to inform the analyses.

1. Citizenship for Tibetan Refugees in Nepal:
Kelsang is currently a second year student studying Social Work at St. Xavier’s College in Kathmandu. I was introduced to him through a friend of mine who interns at the same NGO. It is he who gave me important insights on the status of Tibetan refugees residing in Nepal, specifically on the issue of citizenship. I was able to interview him several times at his workplace and also over a 3-hour morning run.

“I identify as Tibetan because my ancestors originated from Tibet” (written in Tibetan script).

“I identify as Tibetan because my ancestors originated from Tibet” (written in Tibetan script).

He explained to me how after 1989, the Nepalese government stopped issuing permission to Tibetan refugees coming from Tibet to stay in Nepal, and how this decision made by the government led to the creation of two different types of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. Those who arrived before 1989 had the permission from the government to stay and those who came after 1989 and were denied that permission. According to Kelsang, it was the same year that China increased pressure on Tibetans in Tibet because of the Tibetan protest on March 4, a few months shy of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre that took place on June 4.
As more Tibetans tried to escape from Tibet to get away from the martial law practiced by the Chinese authorities in Tibet, the Nepalese government cooperated with China by increasing its border security with Tibet. They also completely stopped providing Tibetan refugees coming to Nepal with permission to settle or transit to India.

In November of the same year, the Chinese Premier visited Nepal, and in the following month of December when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nepalese government banned the Tibetans in Kathmandu from celebrating or engaging in any cultural activities. This was reported by The New York Times here.

Due to lack of documents such as RC (Refugee Identity Certificate), many Tibetan refugees in Nepal were/are currently stateless which means that they do not have any proof of residence, are perpetually prone to harassment by officials, and have very limited political and economic rights.

According to many educated Tibetan youth like Kelsang, Tibetan residents in Nepal are eligible for Nepalese citizenship legally as they fulfill all the requirements under Section 6 of Nepal’s Citizenship Act. However, they are still not granted citizenship. Why is the Nepalese government refusing to provide Tibetans in Nepal with citizenship?

Instead, children born to Tibetan refugees inherit the uncertain and insecure status of their parents. Since it is impossible for Tibetans in Nepal to get citizenship, which gives them such rights as right to own property or purchase a business, many resort to risky options such as purchasing fake citizenship papers which is very risky and usually costs between NPR 3-5 lakhs.

For students like Kelsang, who are currently studying and are the first generation in their families to attend college, seeking citizenship because of the rights that comes with it is a more practical option than the alternative which is statelessness, and would leave them with no legal rights and opportunities for education and employment.

2. The Importance of Refugee Certificate (RC):

“I identify as Tibetan because I was born into a Tibetan family. Hail Tibet!” (written in Nepali Bhasa/Devanagari).

“I identify as Tibetan because I was born into a Tibetan family. Hail Tibet!” (written in Nepali Bhasa/Devanagari).

Since the Nepalese government refuses to provide Tibetan residents with citizenship, and/or any form of legal status, the Refugee Identity Certificate (RC) is the only available form of documentation that can provide some very limited security from being harassed by Nepalese officials. Therefore, RC is a very important document to have as it does not only give Tibetans in Nepal the permission to remain in Nepal with limited rights, but is also the pre-requirement to apply for and obtain a Travel Document. However, most Tibetans I have talked to do not know anyone who has ever been able to obtain one.

In 1995, the UNHCR requested the Nepalese government to issue RCs to at least all the Tibetans who arrived before 1989. Tsering and Phunstok, both of whom are Kelsang’s friends from college explained how the Nepalese government did not provide RC to all who were eligible despite UNHCR’s request. They also talked about how Tibetans are required to renew their RCs regularly, and how that is a problem in itself as Nepalese authorities are used to delaying the renewal procedure, and asking for monetary bribes on top of the mandatory fee in exchange for the renewal stamp.

According to Tsering, an RC is extremely important for Tibetans in Nepal because without it, they cannot purchase a sim card or automobiles, or apply for a license to drive, or ever dream of going abroad to study by obtaining a travel document. Since Tsering and Phuntsok both attended schools in Nepal, they are well aware of the fact that it is very difficult to get admitted into a school or get a job in the long run without an RC. They said there are many Tibetan students who currently do not have RCs, which means that they face the inevitable risk of not being able to attend colleges, or get jobs, or even move freely domestically. The only option available and feasible is to purchase fake documents, which is a huge risk in itself. In accordance with what I have heard through the conversations I had, it seems that the Nepalese government is still unwilling to issue RCs to Tibetan refugees in Nepal in spite of the obvious problems and daily struggles that Tibetans face.