On Saturday 30 September, 2006, foreign climbers at Cho Oyu Base Camp in Tibet watched a line of around 70 local people zigzag up a steep snow slope a short distance away from their tents. They were about to witness something that would become headline news across the world.
At the top of the slope was the Nangpa La pass on the international border between China and Nepal. The pass had been a trade route for centuries. It is likely that Sherpas migrated into Nepal over the Nangpa La in the 16th century. They made their home in the Khumbu region, just the other side of the pass, grew crops on its fertile slopes, and traded salt, wool, grain and cotton with their kinsmen back in Tibet.
The Nangpa La remained an important trade route, but by 2006 it was no longer an official border crossing point. These people were Tibetan Buddhists on their way to India to claim asylum and join the Tibetan Buddhist community there as refugees.
At 10.30am, before they had reached the safety of the pass, a group of figures below them opened fire. One of the Tibetans, a 17-year-old nun called Kelsang Namtso, was shot dead and lay bleeding in the snow. Climbers watched in disbelief as the shooting continued for 15 minutes. About 40 Tibetans fled into Nepal, but the remainder, some of them children, were arrested and marched through base camp by Chinese police. A British police officer, Steve Lawes, was in camp at the time, and told reporters from The Independent that the children looked straight ahead, too frightened to look around as kids usually do.
Chinese authorities initially denied any knowledge of the incident, then claimed that the police had acted in self defence after being attacked. But there were too many witnesses for this story to stick. One witness, a Romanian photographer called Sergei Matei, filmed the incident and smuggled his footage out of China. It clearly showed that the Tibetans had their backs to the police when the shooting started.
Kelsang Namtso had no access to education in Tibet and had been hoping to study at the Dolma Ling nunnery in India. She was travelling with her friend Dolma Palkyi, who said she had paid $700 to smugglers who guided groups over the Himalayas into India and Nepal. Restrictions on religious freedom in Tibet drove 2,500 to 4,000 Tibetans to attempt the crossing every year. There were no established legal routes for such Tibetans to emigrate, which created a thriving market for the smugglers.
In 2006 it wasn’t uncommon for mountaineers at Cho Oyu Base Camp to see Tibetans crossing the pass, but I don’t remember seeing any in 2010 when I spent several weeks at Cho Oyu Base Camp during my own attempt on the mountain. The pass can be seen clearly from camp and is just a two-hour hike away. We hiked up to it during an expedition rest day. It was a nice viewpoint, peaceful and remote; It was hard to imagine such a place to be the scene of bloodshed; to witness such an event during a climbing holiday must have been appalling beyond belief.
I was reminded of these events last week, where here in the UK a story triggered by remarkably similar events has been dominating the news headlines. National icon Gary Lineker, presenter of the legendary football show Match of the Day was suspended then reinstated by the BBC for criticising the British government’s asylum policies. I was still at school when I watched him score a hat-trick against Poland during the 1986 World Cup, and studying for my ‘A’ Levels when he fell over twice in the box then got up and banged a couple of penalties in against Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup quarter final. He was a national treasure long before the events of the last week raised him to heights that even Reinhold Messner cannot reach without supplementary oxygen.
The story blew up into a row about government interference in broadcasting and the impartiality of Britain’s national broadcaster. Important as these are, the actions that triggered them got lost in the noise.
The UK government has proposed new legislation which it has called the Illegal Migration Bill to deal with the problem of increasing numbers of people who risk their lives crossing the channel from France on small boats. They have proposed that anyone arriving in the UK by this route (or any other irregular means, without documentation or permission to enter) will be automatically barred from claiming asylum. They will be held in detention and returned within a month of arrival.
But the small boat problem is a recent problem of the British government’s own making. It wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t closed all legitimate routes for most refugees to enter the country. There was virtually no one crossing the channel in small boats in 2017. It started with a trickle of around 300 in 2018 and grew to over 45,000 last year. More than 3,000 have crossed so far in 2023. None of them are Ukrainian or Hong Kong citizens, who both have legitimate means of claiming asylum before they arrive.
Meanwhile the backlog of people waiting to have their asylum applications processed has grown to over 160,000. Many have waited over a year for a decision, during which time they are not allowed to work. Most are housed in hotels as they wait, at huge expense to the government, where they are prone to exploitation by gangs offering them opportunities to work illegally. Some have been attacked by far right protesters, emboldened by the divisive language that politicians have used to describe asylum seekers, such as invasion and swarming.
The proposed Illegal Migration Bill is illegal on at least two counts. Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that it doesn’t matter how those fleeing persecution enter a country, they still have a right to claim asylum. The principle of non-refoulement states that no one should be returned to a country where they are at risk from persecution. These are international legal principles that all United Nations (UN) member states are required to follow.
Britain was one of the earliest signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is enforced in law by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which the British government is threatening to leave. But in the same way that Brexit reduced freedom of movement for British citizens, leaving the ECHR will also take away human rights protections for British citizens. The British government’s proposal to deal with the problem of small boats crossing the channel is not only inhumane, cruel and illegal, it is stupid and incompetent, and will harm everyone.
Some of you may be wondering why I’ve turned this blog post about an event on Cho Oyu into a political rant. But this isn’t about party politics, as politicians like to claim when their policies are criticised; it’s about universal human values that we all believe in regardless of whom we vote for.
When asylum seekers were shot by Chinese police on Cho Oyu in 2006, some reporters criticised western climbers for not speaking out against the atrocity. Fair enough. Everyone has a right to safety. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in freedom with the ability to travel to faraway places, fall in love with those places not just because of the landscape but the people too. We have a duty to speak up for them, whether they are shot trying to leave their own country, or detained and returned when they arrive in ours looking for safety.