Tibetan Refugees

Why Tibetans Leave Tibet

Cham DancesTibetans are denied the space to develop and express their distinct culture and identity as the Chinese government’s vision of progress and development takes shape in Tibet.

Religious Repression

Tibetans cannot freely study and practice their religion. Government restrictions on celebrating important Buddhist anniversaries and required denunciations of the Dalai Lama further demonstrate the exclusion of Tibetans from the decision making process that determines the practices of their daily lives.

China’s Economic Policies in Tibet

China’s economic policies in Tibet are based on a political agenda that fails to consider Tibetan needs, views, and livelihoods. Tibetan views of what development in Tibet should look like are not solicited, as the PRC pushes forward with its ‘Western Development Strategy’, integrating Tibetan areas into the larger Chinese market, regardless of Tibetan participation. This results in either Tibetans being resettled off their lands, separated from their traditional livelihoods or otherwise marginalized by China’s economic policies.


In Tibet today there is a lack of encouragement for the study of the Tibetan language. The national curriculum is taught in Tibetan language medium only in primary schools in Tibet. As a result, education levels among Tibetans in Tibet are much lower than those of Chinese. Over the last decade, approximately 30% of Tibetan refugees were children and students seeking a Tibetan education in exile.

Political Repression

Many Tibetans leave Tibet in order to avoid arrest and persecution for political charges. Political activism that runs counter to any Communist Party position is strictly prohibited and heavily penalized according to Chinese laws. China often labels such activity, as well as many simple assertions of the Tibetan identity, as “splittism” (attempting to “split Tibet from China) in order to curtail dissent and ensure compliance with Party policies. Punishments meted out for such activities can entail harsh prison terms and physical abuse.

The Political Situation of Tibetans Living in and Transiting to Nepal

Tibetan Refugee Reception Center

Tibetan Refugee Reception Center

In recent years between 2,500 and 3,500 Tibetans on average have made the dangerous crossing thru the Himalayas to India thru Nepal. However, China’s ensuing crackdown on the overwhelmingly peaceful protests which began in March 2008 has led to a dramatic decrease of refugees in 2008, with only 652 known to have made the journey. Unfortunately, the status of Tibetans in Nepal has grown increasingly unstable as China exerts greater influence on Nepal’s policies towards Tibetans.

Status of Tibetans Who Arrived pre-1989 vs. post-1989

Tibetans who arrived prior to 1989, and their offspring, qualify for a government-issued refugee [identity] certificate (RC) and can remain in Nepal but with certain limited civil rights, restricted movement and some degree of security in case of harassment.

While no longer granting Tibetan new arrivals with limited status, since 1989 the Nepalese government does allow Tibetans to transit thru Nepal on their way to India, with the aid of the Tibetan Refugee Reception Center and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Tibetan Refugee Reception Center

The Tibetan Refugee Reception Center (TRRC) in Kathmandu provides temporary shelter and basic medial services for Tibetans transiting thru Nepal on their way to India. It also arranges for exit permits and travel for crossing to India.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The UNHCR is responsible for the safety of Tibetans transiting thru Nepal on their way to India. With few exceptions, the UNHCR registers Tibetan new arrivals as ‘persons of concern’ and assists with their safe passage to India. Increasingly, they are looking for durable solutions for Tibetans in Nepal. The UNHCR’s mandate includes monitoring, collecting data, and educating border security personnel on the safe passage afforded to Tibetans. The so called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the UNHCR and Nepal government provides for cooperation in the opening of Nepal for the safe transit of Tibetans from the border regions thru Nepal and onward to India.

Tibetan Welfare Office (TWO)

The TWO was responsible for the care of Tibetan refugees transiting thru Nepal and for long staying Tibetans in Nepal. The closure of the TWO, along with the closure of the Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, exacerbates the ‘protracted refugee situation’ for long-staying Tibetan refugees and means that governments and NGOs have no established point of contact with experience and expertise in dealing with Tibetan issues in Nepal. The office was ordered closed by Nepalese authorities in January 2005.

Office of the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Office of the Representative of the Dalai Lama in Kathmandu was symbolic of the presence of the Dalai Lama to the 20,000 Tibetans living in Nepal and to the hundreds of thousands of Nepalese Buddhists in the Himalayan regions who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The office was ordered closed by Nepalese authorities in January 2005.

Images taken on March 10, 2008, show Chinese embassy officials working behind police lines directing police activity against Tibetan protests in Kathmandu. One official attempted to prevent their photograph from being taken by an American observer, who reported to ICT that they spat at him.
Nepal’s Changing Political Climate

Nepal’s decade’s long civil war came to an end in 2006. Nepal’s monarchy was abolished and Nepal’s Maoists began their integration into an interim government, ushering in a new era in Nepalese politics. However, the seismic shift in Nepal’s political affairs has not changed the status of Tibetans residing in Nepal. Nepal’s government has yet to register many Tibetans who arrived before 1989 and their eligible offspring for refugee [identity] certificates, Tibetans crossing the Himalayas continue to face deportation at the hands of Nepalese border guards, and the vulnerability of Tibetans residing in Nepal grows as China’s influence extends into Nepalese politics.

US Resettlement Plan

In September 2005, then US President George Bush proposed a new program to resettle certain Tibetan refugees from Nepal to the United States out of consideration of the vulnerability of many long-staying Tibetan refugees in Nepal. The Nepal government has so far blocked the program.

Nangpa Pass Shooting Incident, September 2006

In September 2006, a 17-year old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso, was shot dead by Chinese police while she was crossing the Nangpa Pass with a group of other Tibetan nuns, monks, children and others into exile. She was just 20 minutes walk away from the Nepal border when she died in the snow on the pass. Footage of the incident taken by a Romanian cameraman broadcast news of her death to the world, and refuted China’s claim that their border troops had fired ‘in self-defense.’ Read more »

See ICT’s reports regarding the Nangpa Pass shooting »

Dangerous Crossings

The International Campaign for Tibet monitors the situation of Tibetan refugees, gathering first-hand information and bringing this information to interested parties in Nepal, including the Nepalese government and foreign embassies, the UNHCR, and the US and EU governments. Our annual report, Dangerous Crossing: Conditions Impacting the Flight of Tibetan Refugees, is available online.