By Rinzin Dorjee

In the wake of the recent earthquake in Nepal, one of the headlines of the BBC news article read, “Fears for Nepal’s ‘Invisible’ Tibetan refugees”. Invisible. Tibetan. Refugees.

It showed a picture of an 83-year old Tibetan woman named Passang Lhamo in Bridim village in Nepal against a backdrop of the crumbling ruins of her house. According to the article, ethnic Tibetan villages like the one where Passang lives are located in the middle of the quake-affected zone and are among the poorest in Nepal. The BBC news reported that Tibetan refugees who have perished during the earthquake couldn’t possibly be identified, or be counted towards the total number of deaths reported by the government. How is this possible?

In keeping with the information from International Campaign for Tibet (Washington D.C.), an organization established to support the Tibetan people’s struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Refugee Agency in Nepal and the Kathmandu Reception Center (KRC), over 2000 Tibetan refugees risk crossing the dangerous Nepalese border and the Himalayan passes every year to come into exile (Nepal) from Tibet since 1959. Most of these Tibetans cannot be identified because officially they do not exist. The Nepalese government has resisted issuing residency rights. Save for a very few Tibetans who were fortunately given Nepalese citizenship, the bulk of the Tibetan refugee population in Nepal currently do not have identity cards. They are stateless in every sense of the word. What does this mean?

Untitled3At the very basic level, it means that owing to the lack of recognition as refugees or any definable legal status, the future of the Tibetan refugees and their descendants residing in a country that refuses to officially recognize their presence is increasingly insecure, unsafe and frightening. Due to their statelessness despite the entitlement to a nationality under international law, Tibetans continuously face harassment, imprisonment, and face the risks of being returned to Tibet. The present circumstance of Tibetans in Nepal needs immediate assistance from foreign governments, the UNHCR and, the international community, and most importantly, it needs a more durable solution.

This is what I am interested in. This is the main point around which I would like my research to rotate. A more durable solution. How can this be made possible? How can I bring attention to this issue as a student? How can I, a student, make you, a student, start thinking, discussing, or talking about it?

Untitled2In collaboration with the various Tibetan refugee settlements in Kathmandu, and the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center, I have proposed to focus my project on understanding and documenting the lives and plight of Tibetan refugees, and produce a short video-journal/documentary. I have also proposed to work towards creating a collection of possibly 100 portraits of Tibetan refugees and their personal narratives for an exhibition with the ultimate goal of creating awareness about the challenges that thousands of these refugees face as displaced Tibetans, and shed light on the dynamics of resettlement through the use of multimedia.

Unfortunately, owing to current restrictions on travel to Nepal and the requirement of various additional supporting documents, the period(s) of my civic engagement research project had to be postponed to winter break from Dec-13-2015 to Jan-13-2015. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Duke Human Rights Center and my two advisors for kindly supporting me continuously, and for being patient throughout the course of the preparation for this project from the previous semester to the first half of the summer holiday.

Untitled4To provide a brief historical background on my project, since 1959, even though Nepal has become the country of refuge for Tibetan refugees who are fleeing Tibet, it is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol, and hence has no laws for refugees or asylum seekers, or programs that exist in other countries to facilitate the resettlement of the incoming refugees. The US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practice in 2013 mentions that the Nepalese government has not yet “established a system for providing protection to refugees and does not provide for local integration as a durable solution”. Also, a study done by Tibet Justice Center entitled, “Tibet’s Stateless Nationals” in 2002 highlights how Tibetan Refugees in Nepal are viewed as “foreigners and non-citizens”. In addition to providing minimal support to the growing refugee population in terms of protection, assistance and durable solutions, the government of Nepal has further imposed increasing restrictions on Tibetans living in the country as a result of strong pressure from China, according to Human Rights Watch (April 2014).

Untitled5My project will seek to capture the daily challenges of the Tibetan refugee communities in exile adapting to life outside of Tibet and their experiences of the arduous journey from a from a largely subsistence-oriented, to a very different lifestyle in exile. In particular, this project will closely investigate the notion of “Boedpa” or “Tibetan identity” of the growing Tibetan exile community, informed by the narratives of Tibetan refugee population living in the capital city of Kathmandu, Nepal. I intend to explore, and understand how Tibetan refugees in refugee camps and settlements in Kathmandu and have integrated into the Nepalese society. I will then analyze the exile community’s present status through their participation in social service and community development projects spearheaded by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) or the Reception Center to preserve Tibetan culture, language and religion under the watchful eyes of the Nepalese government.

Furthermore, against a backdrop of literature reviews and studies conducted on Tibetan diaspora and the making of diasporic identities by other authors and information from the Central Tibetan Administration, this project will provide me with the opportunity to research the rationale behind why some Tibetan refugees have resisted the idea of integration and reject official permanent residency outside of Tibet (or not), which can be compared with the experiences of Tibetans who have resettled in western countries such as the US. Unlike many Tibetans in western societies, some Tibetans in Nepal seem have rejected the idea of permanent residency in order to encourage and feed the hope to return to Tibet some day. The Historical Society’s 2008 Conference on ‘Migration, Diaspora, Ethnicity, & Nationalism in History’ at John Hopkins University highlighted many interesting studies that are related to this project especially the one entitled, “Tibetan Refugees: Resisting Diasporization?” by Anne-Sophie Bentz, which argues, “that Tibetan refugees who settle in Nepal seem to be resisting the very idea of diasporization.”

Through interviewing Tibetan refugees and recording their personal experiences, I hope to bring forward their stories to a wider audience, and write a paper that would highlight their circumstance, and contribute as much as possible towards their endeavor in revealing the need for foreign governments, and students, yes, students, like you and I, to write, talk, and discuss about how they are treated in host countries so that we may take a step closer towards finding a more durable solution to the problem of statelessness that confronts them.

  • What if the Nepalese government were to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention? Would it lead to adopting legislation to improve its reception and accommodation of Tibetan refugees in the future?
  • Should UNHCR be doing more in order to urge the Nepalese government into ratifying the Refugee conventions and work more actively with other governments in terms of promoting third-country resettlement of Tibetan refugees from Nepal? After all, UNHCR came up with a 10-year plan to eliminate statelessness. Shouldn’t it work harder towards implementing its mandate to prevent stateless for Tibetan refugees in Nepal?
  • How is the UNHCR’s present recognition of Tibetan refugees as “people of concern” even helpful? Does it pave way for a durable solution to the issue of statelessness of Tibetans in Nepal?The short answer is No. I bring up all these questions because I have to. We have to.

Untitled6I remember the day I met Emily, the program coordinator at DHRC after I was informed that I was one of the recipients of the summer research grant this year. Emily gave each of the recipients a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the form of a small blue booklet. I read the booklet while I was on the C2 bus on my way to my Central campus apartment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, providing every person the right “to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. Nepal has agreed to several treaties that provide rights and protections to refugees within its borders. This is just a small example of one of the nooks and crannies where I find the need, the energy and the reason to logically urge the Nepalese government to enact legislation for refugees seeking asylum within its borders, and to put more effort into increasing its cooperation with the UNHCR to facilitate its mandate to protect refugees, stateless persons and asylum seekers. And most importantly, to provide all the Tibetan refugees with refugee identification certificates.