From combined dispatches
Police in Nepal handed over 18 Tibetan refugees to Chinese authorities a week ago in what activists said was a break with Nepal’s past tolerance of Tibetans trying to leave their Himalayan territory.
The United States criticized Nepal this week for the deportations, saying they violated international norms on the treatment of asylum seekers.
The deported Tibetans were among 21 who fled to Nepal in April. They were arrested for illegally entering the Himalayan kingdom.
“The U.S. government deplores the government of Nepal’s deportation of 18 Tibetan asylum seekers, including eight minors, to China,” the U.S. Embassy in Katmandu said in a statement.
“This action not only violates international norms and practices regarding the humane treatment of asylum seekers, but also tarnishes the government of Nepal’s long-standing and well-deserved reputation for tolerance and hospitality.”
The State Department called on Nepal to return to its previous practice of allowing Tibetans to seek protection in Nepal. “We are outraged by this development,” State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said in Washington.
There was no comment from the Nepali government, but the Chinese Embassy in Katmandu issued a statement late Wednesday, saying: “These 18 Tibetans were illegal immigrants who violated immigration laws and regulations of both Nepal and China.”
They entered Nepal in hopes of reaching the north Indian base of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. They were arrested for entering Nepal without valid travel documents, and held until their handover to Chinese Embassy officials.
Tibetan activists expressed fear the Tibetans would be punished, perhaps in a labor camp. Those deported included women and children as young as 6, according to activists and an American Tibet scholar who followed the police motorcade from the Nepalese capital to the Chinese border.
“It was a very tense, very depressing situation,” Robert Barnett, a professor at Columbia University in New York, said by telephone from Katmandu. “It suggests a major change, in that Nepal will be willing to do China’s bidding in this area now.”
Activists voiced concern for the refugees’ safety. Tibetans who leave the Himalayan territory without permission can face prison or torture if returned, they say.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called the deportation “a blatant violation of Nepal’s obligations under international law.”
About 3,000 Tibetans leave China via neighboring Nepal each year, mostly to study in India at schools set up by the government of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader who lives in India.
Most lack passports and visas. Until recently, Nepal let most pass through to India. Activists said last Saturday’s incident was the first time Tibetans jailed by Nepal had been sent back.
The Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, a northern Indian town, deplored the deportations and appealed to China to hand the refugees over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.