For five months, exasperated Save the Children Fund UK (SCF) officials have been trying to work out what has gone wrong. Their only expatriate on the ground in Tibet, a 30-year-old education advisor, has been working there for three years improving village education. In July she went on holiday, but when SCF tried to renew her permit to return to Lhasa, China said no.
Since then, she has spent most of the time waiting in Nepal hoping that China would relent. But to no avail. She was allowed in for a week last month to sort out her affairs in Lhasa, but all attempts by senior SCF officials to obtain the new work permit - or at least an explanation - have failed. The SCF's deadline to the Tibet authorities of the first week of December passed without any response.
The case has unnerved foreign-aid workers in Lhasa, because an individual rather than an organisation has been targetted. There is a feeling that China is wary of Westerners who work in Tibet for several years, building up local contacts and speaking Tibetan.
China has also been leaning on the biggest NGO operating long-term in Tibet, Medecins sans Frontieres Belgium, which had visa hitches at the same time for two foreign workers. MSF's Big Bone Disease project ran into difficulties with the local partner, and the Chinese told the agency that its two foreign physiotherapists had been in China too long. The problems were only resolved when senior MSF Belgium officials flew to Lhasa.
SCF has been in Tibet for 6 years and runs education and environmental programmes. An SCF spokeswoman in London would not comment on the permit refusal, and requested that the aid worker's name not be published. The village schools programme will continue, she said. "We are really sad that our education advisor will not be continuing to work with the programme, but she has worked with a team to set up a project which our Tibetan staff will be implementing," she added.
The big question is what this means for the European Union's much-delayed 7.6m ecu (pounds 6m) Panam aid project, which is supposed to involve foreign NGOs with Tibet experience. Should Sir Leon Brittan, a vice president of the European Commission, even contemplate signing the agreement with China if NGOs do not have the right to keep the staff they need in Tibet? He is hoping to sign before Christmas.
The Panam Integrated Rural Development Project, which includes irrigation, agriculture, education and health schemes for an area 200km south-west of Lhasa, has a turbulent history. It was suspended in January 1995, amid accusations in the European Parliament that it would encourage Han Chinese migration into Tibet and damage the environment.
A reappraisal was made by the EU. The final version of the project agreement is understood to specify that NGOs with local experience will be "favourably considered" to implement the education and health components of Panam. Confirmation that NGOs familiar with Tibet would be centrally involved was crucial in persuading sceptical MEPs to endorse Panam. But Commission officials have yet to come clean about the non-involvement of the prime NGO candidates, even though SCF informed Brussels of the permit problem last month. The SCF spokeswoman said: "Panam was something ... that we were looking at ... [But] without this education advisor in post, we would not have the capacity to go ahead."
MSF Belgium made it clear to the EU a year ago that it would not be involved in Panam, preferring to concentrate its resources on poorer areas. The Swiss Red Cross is the only other long-term NGO in Tibet. Sadly, the EU official in Peking with responsibility for Panam was "too busy" to discuss the project, and written questions put to the EU's Peking mission on Friday received no response.Reuse content