China’s influence in Nepal endangers Tibetan refugees

The country's impact on Nepalese politics makes life for Tibetans there extremely difficult, reports Emily Walker.


Buddhist flags – people have freedom of religion in Nepal, which is why so many Tibetan Buddhists have stayed there. by Emily Walker

Tibetan refugees are extremely passionate about their homeland, culture and freedom – which is why it has devastated so many families to have to flee the country ever since the Chinese military invaded and took control of Tibet in 1949.

Until 2008, over roughly 128,000 Tibetans made it through the incredibly dangerous crossing over the Himalayas and more than 20,000 are currently living in Nepal as refugees, according to the Central Tibetan Administration and International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). Yet because of the overwhelming amount of undocumented Tibetans in Nepal, it is extremely difficult to get a precise number.

A Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal.

Emily Walker

It is estimated that somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 Tibetans were coming into Nepal each year. However, after several massive peaceful protests in Tibet in 2008, China intensely cracked down on Tibetans and severely tightened the borders. Since then there has been a dramatic decrease of refugees with roughly a few hundred people known to have made the journey last year and only 60 this year.

Tibetans in Nepal are known for their beautiful shops filled with stunning crafts and jewellery. One of the reasons they have these shops is because it is nearly impossible to gain Nepalese citizenship and they are not allowed to work for Nepalese corporations. Owning a small business, selling items on the street or selling Tibetan products to tourists inside their welcoming refugee camps are their only options for making a living in Nepal.

A Tibetan refugee making jewellery to sell inside the camp.

Emily Walker

Among the Tibetan community in Nepal, you will find many Tibetan flags with the words ‘Free Tibet’ in various languages, along with pictures of the Dalai Lama. They use these items to represent their desire for freedom, human rights, and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. In Tibet, speaking out against China’s control or exhibiting such items could lead to imprisonment, torture, and even death.

‘When China took over Tibet, we had to flee for our freedom. My family didn’t want to live in fear and oppression, so they took the dangerous journey through the mountains to Nepal,’ said Tibetan shop owner Dzasa.*

Like many refugees currently living in Nepal, he was only a child when his parents fled Tibet in fear. He has lived in Nepal nearly his entire life, where his son (Dawa) was born.

Free Tibet stickers that are seen throughout the Tibetan community.

Emily Walker

‘The Chinese military were waiting at the border and captured my father. No one ever saw him again. We believe he was in prison and perhaps killed,’ Dzasa said.

The Chinese military have tightened the border so much that people are forced to find even longer and more dangerous routes through the mountain. Tibetans attempting to cross the border into Nepal face deportation at the hands of Nepalese border guards. The Nepalese government has also shut down various NGOs in the country that work toward supporting Tibetan refugees and those in transit to India as well as the U.S. resettlement plan, which offers Tibetan refugees the opportunity resettle in the United States.

China has an incredible influence over Nepal, whose government deeply admires the communist state. In fact, the country’s 10-year civil war was led by rebels called Maoists after China’s former communist leader. And while Nepal suffers from India’s current alleged fuel blockade, they are hoping to build even stronger ties with China.

Dzasa in his craft/jewellery shop in Nepal.

Emily Walker

Because of this crucial relationship with China, during Tibetan Buddhist holidays Nepalese soldiers walk through Tibetan refugee camps to monitor and ensure there are no protests or ‘uprisings against China’. Tibetan refugees are prohibited to partake in any kind of peaceful protests, which is upsetting for the many refugees who want to raise awareness of the injustice in their homeland.

‘A few years ago we wanted to silently walk around Pokhara Lake with “Free Tibet” signs but the Chinese government told Nepal they must put an end to it,’ said Tashi, a Tibetan refugee living in one of Pokhara’s camps.

During the attempted protest Nepalese soldiers were told to shut it down and began pushing through the silent protestors, throwing down their signs and yelling at everyone to go home.

An overview of Dzasa’s shop, which is similar to many Tibetan shops in the area.

Emily Walker

‘Some of the tourists ran toward us and even started to cry because they saw we were peacefully protesting. They knew we were not there to harm, simply to stand up for our people’s rights,’ Tashi said.

Many Tibetans, like Dzasa’s son, who were born in the refugee camps and spent their entire lives in Nepal, do not have passports since Tibetan parents are not able to register their children’s birth. They are not fully accepted in Nepal and considered as second-class citizens. These refugee children feel trapped without any official form of identification.

One of the many Stupas (Buddhist shrines) in Nepal.

Emily Walker

As China’s influence increases in Nepal, Tibetan refugees become more vulnerable and are subject to the type of control that their families fled from.

‘Until China stops controlling and oppressing Tibetans, until it allows it to be a truly autonomous region where we can keep our culture and freedom, Tibetans in and out of Tibet will not feel safe or fully free,’ said one of Nepal’s Tibetan camp leaders and social worker, Tenzin.

*Note: names have been changed for the safety of refugees living in Nepal.