Nepal is the natural choice for Tibetans looking to flee China: it stretches along most of the southern Tibetan border and has a number of ethnically Tibetan communities, and the Nepalese government has traditionally been quite helpful to Tibetan refugees. Over the last few years much of that has changed, however, with the new Maoist government seeking to gain Chinese aid and favor by cracking down on Tibetans in transit. The International Campaign for Tibet has published their annual report on the situation:
In 2010, security along the Tibet-Nepal border, enhanced in preparation for the lighting of the 2008 Olympic torch lighting on Mt. Everest, was further entrenched. The numbers of Tibetan refugees successfully reaching the Tibetan Refugee Transit Center in Kathmandu, in sharp decline since 2008, were slightly higher than in 2009.
In June 2010, a group of seven Tibetans, including a 7 year-old girl and 12 year-old boy, were pursued through Nepalese territory by Chinese armed police. In July, reports reached Kathmandu of the forcible return of three Tibetan refugees, apprehended and flown to Tibet by helicopter accompanied by a Nepalese politician and a policeman, was the first case of refoulement, prohibited by international law, since 2003.
Although Nepal is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the principle of non-refoulement – the prohibition against the forcible return of refugees to a place where their lives or liberty could be threatened – is an international norm and is specifically included in the U.N. Convention against Torture to which Nepal is a party. Tibetans who are forcibly returned face detention, summary torture, and possible imprisonment.
The lack of action on this from both UN agencies and governments which could easily act to neutralize some of Beijing’s influence has been quite disappointing. It’s a very concrete step they could take which would unambiguously help people. Tibetans on the run have enough to worry about without needing to wonder if Nepalese police will fly them straight back to the gulags.