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Top U.S. diplomat for Tibetan affairs visits refugees in Nepal

Uzra Zeya, the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues, met with Tibetan refugees in Nepal as well as government officials during a recent visit to Kathmandu in the highest-level visit by a U.S. official in a decade, sources in the Himalayan country told RFA.

Zeya, who also met with Tibetans in India on her trip, reportedly discussed the refugees’ undocumented status during the meeting. In 1995, Nepal stopped issuing refugee cards for Tibetans who flee across the border from their homeland, which has been under Chinese control since 1951.

Nepal is seen by China as a partner in its Belt and Road Initiative to boost global trade through infrastructure investment, and Nepal’s government has cited promises of millions of dollars of Chinese investment as a reason for restricting Tibetan activities in the country.

Zeya’s trip from May 20 to 22 was intended to “deepen cooperation on human rights and democratic governance goals, and to advance humanitarian priorities,” the State Department said on its website.

“Zeya met with Tibetans in Jawalakhel where they raised the problems they are facing in the absence of proper documentation in Nepal … and deteriorating human rights conditions,” a Nepalese journalist told RFA’s Tibetan Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The lack of proper identification cards for the refugees is a result of pressure from the Chinese government, Vijay Karna, Nepal’s former ambassador to Demark, told RFA.

“More than 5,000 Tibetan refugees and their families are facing problems regarding their refugee card. Resolving this issue would also be of huge significance to the Nepalese government,” he said.

“Zeya’s meeting with the Tibetan community in Nepal during this visit sends a clear message to the Chinese government,” Karna said. “It is high time the Nepalese government resolves the issues of Tibetan refugees in Nepal with obtaining their identity cards.”

Sangpo, who works at the Human Rights Organization of Nepal, told RFA that any solution to the ID card problem would have to be practical.

“Right now an ID card would act only as an ID card and nothing more. To get a travel document, one must first run around to three or four different offices … and since there are no proper guidelines in place, the government should reconsider this,” Sangpo said.

Zeya’s meeting with the Tibetan community in Nepal has been closely watched by China, Santosh Sherma, a co-founder of Nepal Institute for Policy Research, told RFA.

“Before the arrival of Uzra Zeya and her delegation in Nepal, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi called on Nepal’s home minister to discuss the One-China Policy and bilateral relations between the two countries to get assurance from Nepal. So, Zeya’s visit has definitely made China anxious,” Sherma said.  

Of his meeting with Zeya, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba tweeted, “It was a pleasure receiving the US delegation led by Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human rights. We exchanged views on Nepal-US relations and matter of mutual interests.”

Zeya announced in a tweet on May 21 that the U.S. would provide Nepal with $659 million through the United States Agency for International Development.

The United States, U.N. and European Union have urged Nepal’s government to protect the rights of Tibetans living in Nepal and of refugees fleeing Tibet. The recent visit also coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Nepal-US diplomatic ties.

Washington-based Freedom House rated Nepal “partly free” in its 2022 annual index of world liberty, with a score of 57 out of a possible 100. China was rated “not free” with a score of 9, while Tibet got an even lower ranking of just 1.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Eugene Whong.