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Analysis: Pushed by China, Tibetans leave Nepal

Political instability, economic uncertainty and pressure from China bear down on one of world's most vulnerable populations.

Western observers, none of whom would speak on the record about Tibetans in Nepal out of deference to China, say as long as Tibetans exiles here keep their heads down, they are genuinely left alone. But sensitive anniversaries like March 10 bring an increased police presence, advocates say.

Sudip Pathak, president of the Human Rights Organization of Nepal, and a former human rights commissioner in the Nepali government, says on the Tibetan refugee issue Kathmandu is caught between two giants. “The government always thinks that if I go anti-China, than I cannot rule in Nepal. If I go anti-India, I cannot rule in Nepal. This is a problem in the Nepali psychology.”

As recently as Feb. 28, a Chinese delegation toured Nepal’s eastern Dolakha district to wage a protest against an increase in Tibetan refugees crossing the border (17 had just slipped through). In February alone, more than 90 Tibetans were arrested and detained by police, according to tallies kept by Pathak’s group. Some had made the crossing from Tibet, some had entered from India (apparently after traveling there on pilgrimage), and others were long-time residents without proper papers.

The vast majority of Tibetans in Nepal — as many as three-quarters of the 30,000 Tibetans living here, according to some estimates — are undocumented and essentially illegal. Many are highly educated, but most born in the last two decades have no right to work or travel.

Advocates do acknowledge Nepal is only partially ceding to Chinese demands. While Tibetans may be vulnerable to arrest, they are often quickly released. Bans on political rallies notwithstanding, Tibetans are generally well respected among the Nepalese, who share similar cultural and religious backgrounds.

Even still, many Tibetans residing in Nepal see two choices for their future: grin and bear it, or try and leave.

At Tashi Palkhel, two kindergarten teachers left last year. An elderly shop keeper said her entire family — son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren — packed and left recently, leaving her alone. At nearby school Tashi Ling, the camp’s only health worker is slated to leave in the coming months, joining her husband in Toronto.

Among those who remain, greener pastures are the principal topic of discussion. During a recent visit to the two main settlements near Pokhara — the trekkers’ paradise in the heart of the Himalayas — interviews with a half-dozen Tibetans in the 20s revealed a variety of strategies for securing their exit.

Some, like Palmo, 28, plan to marry their way west. She met an American last year during his visit to Nepal, she says; they now talk and text daily. “I want to go to America, where my husband lives,” she said through an interpreter before quickly correcting herself. “Soon to be husband.”

Dawa, 26, said six of his 10 closest friends have already left Nepal. His aim is to join them as soon as possible. “We can’t live a life like this,” Dawa said sitting on his stoop beneath a hot afternoon sun. “We need to do something, because we have our families. We need to bring bread home to help our parents when they get old.”

Greg Bruno is a staff writer for the website of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.