February 15, 2011
Under Secretary of State Maria Otero, who serves concurrently as U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, and U.S. Ambassador Scott DeLisi visited the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu on February 13 as part of a high-level visit that includes meetings with government and UN officials. Her visit to Kathmandu comes as both new and long-staying Tibetan refugees feel increasingly exposed to Chinese influence in Nepal.
“Under Secretary Maria Otero expressed the United States’ continued support for the safety and welfare of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and said she would carry their message back to Washington,” said Todd Stein, Director of Government Relations at the International Campaign for Tibet, from Kathmandu. “Her visit signals that concerns for Tibetans, both the refugees and vulnerable long-staying population, remain a key interest in U.S. relations with Nepal.”
The Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu was established in the early 1990s in response to concern in the U.S. Congress that Tibetans fleeing oppression need urgent assistance and protection after what was typically a dangerous crossing through the high mountain passes that separate Tibet and Nepal. The center, funded by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has become a vital link in the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” between the Nepal government and the UNHCR. Pursuant to the Agreement, Tibetans are accorded safe transit through Nepalese territory and allowed to travel onward to India. The process ensured by the Ageement typically means that Tibetans apprehended by Nepalese border police are handed over to Nepalese immigration officials and then to the UNHCR where they are registered as persons "of concern." The Chinese government contends that Tibetans arriving in Nepal are illegal migrants and has visibly sought their handover to Chinese authorities. Although Nepal is prohibited by its obligations under international law from forcibly repatriating Tibetans across the border, incidents of refoulement do occur (see July 27, 2010 ICT report, 'Nepal police forcibly return three Tibetan refugees across border'). Such incidents have been condemned by the U.S. government.
Under Secretary Otero and Ambassador DeLisi talked with new arrivals from Tibet who spoke of the reasons why they chose to leave their homes in Tibet and face the perils of transit, and who shared their happy anticipation of meeting with the Dalai Lama and for the freedoms they hope to enjoy in India. There were 172 new arrivals at the center.
Under Secretary Otero’s portfolio includes U.S. refugee policy and, as Tibet Coordinator, U.S. programs and policy on Tibet. She oversees U.S. humanitarian assistance that supports the Tibetan refugee transit through Nepal onward to Dharamsala, India. The Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu is supported by a U.S. contribution to the UNHCR.
Under Secretary Otero also met with Tibetan community leaders to hear of the challenges they face in Nepal. ICT has documented increasingly assertive actions by Chinese authorities in Nepal, including intrusion into Nepal’s sovereign territory to search for Tibetan refugees in transit, and interference by Chinese authorities in both Nepalese democratic institutions and legal processes, and the Tibetan exiles’ democratic electoral process (see October 3, 2010 ICT report, 'Nepalese police seize ballot boxes from Tibetan exile election,' and June 19, 2010 ICT report, 'A fragile welcome: China's influence on Nepal and its impact on Tibetans').
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