Tibetan Refugees’ Incessant Sojourn in Nepal and India

Defence News: Tibetan refugees to get Indian passports

By Hari Prasad Shrestha     4/6/2018

Khamsum Wangdu and his younger brother Kunsang Namgyal, Tibetan refugees achieved the opportunity to study at the University of Kathmandu’s dental school on scholarship. However, in 2015 they were denied the right to take the final licensing exam owing to their statelessness.

However, the brothers later that year got visas to resettle in Canada and join their father who was already living in Canada on receiving asylum earlier. After more than two years of hard work, both have been admitted to dental programs for the internationally educated dentists in Canada at the University of Toronto.

The brothers were fortunate and personally devoted to their career and resettlement. However, there are many competent Tibetan youths, who could do naught for their careers and cannot apply job for being stateless. In Kathmandu and Pokhara cities of Nepal, such youths are seen in considerable numbers, most of them are engaged in small trades, cottage industries and other forms of informal employment for their livelihood. A similar picture is seen around Dharamshala, a central place for Tibetan refugees in India.

Although Tibetan refugees are successfully rehabilitated and resettled in Nepal and India, however, they are confronted with a series of new challenges; such problems are- educated but unemployed Tibetan youth, and difficulties of traveling abroad for studies, visiting relatives and other social engagements.

After Cultural Revolution in China and the occupation of Tibet, thousands of Tibetans have fled to Nepal by crossing the Himalayas and have settled in different refugee camps, cities, villages in Nepal. Many have gone to India, especially in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives with his followers. The Cultural Revolution is the name given to Mao’s attempt to reassert his beliefs in China.

Even though some Tibetan refugees arrived in Nepal in the early 1950s; the first major influx crossed the border in 1959, following the Lhasa Uprising.

Such Tibetans consider violating the Nepalese boundaries as a great conquest of their life. They have a strong mindset. Only physically and mentally strong people can accomplish the goal of boundary crossing. Walking months secretly over trails is not an anecdote. The questions of verve and trouncing the odds are attached with such travels. There are equal chances of victory and disappointment. Many days, they pass through lonely mountains, even off the trail because of the fear of being detained, many times without food and water. If anyone falls ill on the route, they must carry on their journey in such condition, too. Sometimes they sleep under the open sky of snow and wind. An ordinary over or underaged person can hardly trek on those trails.

On the faces of those who have escaped and crossed the border, the pain of losing an identity can be observed. They become a people without a nation, and their feeling appears to be very sentimental, with an uncertain future.

Friendship Bridge between Nepal and China in Kodari Highway (Khasa) and Syaprubesi- Gyorong Highway are the major two points of crossing for heavy vehicles and people between two countries.

The border trading town of Khasa has remained closed following the earthquake of 2015. China relocated the residents of the earthquake-ravaged border town of Khasa to Xigatse, 200km to the northwest. The earthquake that hit central and eastern Nepal on 25 April 2015 affected Khasa as well, and the residents were moved right after the quake.

Locals claim the resettlement plan was to discourage the illegal trade China believes has grown in the area because of the close ties between Nepalis and residents of the area. Some other say that even though China has security concerns; it is also wary of the Tibetan refugees crossing Nepal through highways and passes between two countries. Currently, dialogue between China and Nepal underway to open this border point.

Being the southern neighbor of China, Nepal must bear the influx of Tibetan refugees. Nepal is the nearest neighbor of Tibet and shortest route to enter India by the Tibetans. On the one hand, Nepalese endeavors to assist the incoming refugees have been praised by many international communities, and on the other hand, Nepal must also bear some criticisms from the international community if any unpleasant incident happens. Besides, Nepal must balance its relationship with China and India regarding the refugee issue.

Nepal and Tibet, the autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, have close historical relationships. The relation of daughter and bread has brought people closer for centuries. The border inhabitants of both sides can enter up to certain territorial distances without passport and visa; only identity cards are required. The 1966 Agreement on Trade, Intercourse, and Related Questions between the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and Nepal permitted Tibetans living in the border regions of the TAR and “religious pilgrims” to cross the Tibeto-Nepalese border without a passport or visa, provided they registered at the border.

Many ethnic groups of northern Nepal, such as the Sherpas, Tamangs, Melangis, and Yolmu share strong religious and cultural bonds, as well as common Tibeto-Burmese racial origins, with Tibetans. It is said that Nepal has its own ‘Tibetan’ population. To this day, many of these ethnic groups, which populate the Himalayan regions of Nepal, rely on cross-border trade with Tibetans and Chinese settlers living in Tibet for their economic livelihood. Moreover, Nepalese often take pilgrimages to the holy Mt. Kailash in Tibet. Likewise, Tibetans travel to worship Buddhist temples in Nepal.

Nepal’s first recorded official relations with Tibet occurred near the middle of the 7th century. By that time, King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet married the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti who, together with the imperial Chinese princess Wen Cheng, shares the credit of introducing Buddhism to Tibet.

The bilateral relations between Nepal and China have been friendly and defined by Nepal’s policy of balancing the competing influence of China and Nepal’s southern neighbor India, the only two neighbors of the Himalayan country after the annexation of the Kingdom of Sikkim by India in 1975 .

The inhabitants of borders of both sides are still interdependent’s’ support for their daily necessities, and the primordial barter system of trade is still prevalent between Nepal and Tibet. Edible items like barley, milk products, rice, flour, etc. are being exported to Tibet from Nepal and Nepal imports garments, salt, wool, edible items and electronics from Tibet. There are two trans-Himalayan highways between Nepal and China to provide modern road transport facilities also to the frontier inhabitants. But these highways are not sufficient to solve the transportation problems of entire borders. Therefore, yaks are being used on a massive scale for transportation of cross-border barter trade. It is interesting to note that people of both the sides walk for many days with yaks across the snowy Himalayan frontiers to transport their items of daily necessities. The life of frontier people is very tough and full of challenges.

In India, the Tibetan diaspora maintains a government in exile in Himachal Pradesh, which coordinates political activities for Tibetans in India. 120,000 refugees remain in India today, most of them entered India through Nepal.

In September 2016, the Delhi High Court ruled that Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 are eligible to apply for Indian passports. This new offer presented a dilemma. ‘Take the passport,’ some said, ‘and end decades of virtual confinement to a single country. Others argued that giving up your statelessness was akin to betraying the Tibetan cause that three generations have fought for’. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in India also urges passport applicants to “take a long-term view rather than considering short-term advantages.”

Some argue that having Indian passport could not be subject to minimize the Tibetan issue. And say, it could make weak CTA’s control over Tibetans. Many Tibetans, however, did not give up hope. “Nations rise up and down — that is happening everywhere. Britain ruled India for 200 years. China was once under the rule of Tibetans,” they say.
Unlike many other refugee-hosting countries, India did not adopt the policy of integrating Tibetans into mainstream Indian society. Rather, it facilitated the preservation and promotion of their distinctive culture, tradition, and identity by setting up separate Tibetan settlements in various parts of India.

In 2007, a senior official of the United States had raised the issue of Tibetan refugees with Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on the resettlement of 5,000 Tibetan refugees out of 20000 residing in Nepal, but the issue did not progress.

During the same time, the third country resettlement program was launched for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, and nearly 111,000 have been settled in various western countries, with the US alone getting more than 90,000 of them.

These Tibetans are said to be living in Nepal without any proper legal paper. Some Tibetans in Nepal find it difficult to understand why the Nepalese Government is willing to allow resettlement of Bhutanese refugees and not Tibetans.

Tibetan refugees who have arrived or will arrive in Nepal after 1989 have been allowed to stay only in transit and are intended to benefit from an informal agreement between the government of Nepal and the UNHCR, often referred to as the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which assumes cooperation among Nepalese police and government officials with the UNHCR providing for the safe transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepal onward to India, which has greatest number of Tibetan refugees.

Up to last decade, some 2,500 to 3,500 unsatisfied Tibetans used to make the dangerous crossing of the Himalayas through Nepal and onward to India, which has now come down to few hundreds per year.

China is more interested in Nepal as result of large numbers of Tibetan refugees live here, and is concerned about anti-China movement in Nepal. It wants Nepal’s support to control border points by restricting illegal movements of Tibetans. China is trying enormously to transform the socioeconomic infrastructures of Tibet, especially in the capital city Lhasa and other important places.

Tibetan Refugees, have been subjected to several problems are the lack of documentation of refugees, and they do not have access to any form of documentation, thereby denying them the legal right of education and employment. This is in sharp contrast to the pre-1989 period when Tibetan refugees were granted Refugee Cards (RC) by then Nepalese government to enable them to access basic amenities.

A 2014 report “Under China’s Shadow: Mistreatment of Tibetans in Nepal” published by the international rights group Human Rights Watch documents the sordid plight of the Tibetans in Nepal. The document mentions how the increasing Chinese influence in Nepal and its overarching economic deals have led Nepal to abandon the terms of a Gentleman’s Agreement that it had concluded with the United Nations refugee agency and which is a critical instrument in ensuring the safe passage of Tibetans seeking to escape from China and/or reach India.

United Nations and the European Union have taken stock of the plight of Tibetan Refugee in Nepal. The UNHCR has strongly advocated for protecting the rights of the Tibetan refugees by urging the Nepal government to grant them official documentation. A European Parliament resolution of 5 April 2011 urged the Nepalese authorities to allow peaceful elections of Tibetans in exile on their territory and to ensure standards of protection for all refugees. Former US President Jimmy Carter minced no words indirectly stating that pressure exerted by the Chinese was responsible for the sorry state of conditions of refugees from Tibet.

Tibetan refugees are frequently described as “illegal immigrants,” and Nepalese leaders frequently assert the need to prevent “anti-China” activity on Nepal’s soil. According to Human Rights Watch, there were more than 8,000 detentions of Tibetans between March and July 2008, most of who were released without charge. The Nepalese government’s laissez-faire approach toward Tibetan refugees began to change and tighten in 1986.

In 1989, pressure from the Chinese government and the growing number of new arrivals led Nepal to initiate a strict border-control policy. The Nepalese government made clear that it would henceforth refuse to accept or recognize new Tibetan refugees. However, the influx of refugees from Tibet to Nepal continues.
Despite some incidents, the government of Nepal has shown great generosity and sympathy toward Tibetans by providing them temporary asylum and other necessary assistance. On the one hand Nepal must comply with the international obligations it has committed in the international forum, and on the other hand, Nepal is not in a position to take excess risk of unfriendliness with neighbors regarding refugee issues.

Nepal’s solution to the rapidly increasing Tibetan refugee problem was to create refugee camps in and around Pokhara and Kathmandu. Already, in the 1960s, a Tibetan-run welfare center and Office of the Dalai Lama had been set up in the nation’s capital. For decades, this proved to be a system for dealing with the continual influx of Tibetan refugees from China.

However, in February 2005, Nepalese authorities demanded the closure of both the Office of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Welfare Office claiming they had not been registered properly. Since then, the task of dealing with Tibetan refugees has fallen on the shoulders of the UNHCR.

Tibetan refugees have settled in India by the hundreds of thousands since 1959, when the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and many of his followers fl ed to the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

Dharamsala is a city in the upper reaches of the Kangra Valley. The town is divided into three parts — Upper Dharamsala called McLeod Ganj, the middle Kotwali Bazar, and the lower Kaccheri area.

The town of McLeod Ganj in Upper Dharamsala is known worldwide for the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Between the 17th century and 1959, the Dalai Lamas were the directors of the Tibetan government, administering a large portion of the area from the capital Lhasa.

In Nepal, Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu city is mini-Tibet where hundreds of Tibetans are seen worshipping Buddhist monastery. Many renounced international personalities visited this monastery. This monastery is the center place of agitation when unrest starts in the Tibetan community.
The site is comparable to Mecca for the Tibetan Buddhists, and every year tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the Himalayan region visit the stupa.

The influx of large populations of Tibetan refugees from China has seen the construction of over 50 Tibetan Gompas (Monasteries) around Boudhanath, which now has the highest concentration of Tibetans in the world outside of Tibet.

The stupa is said to entomb the remains of a Kasyapa sage, venerable both to Buddhists and Hindus. The 36-meter high ancient stupa is one of the biggest in the world, and as of 1979, Boudhanath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Over the past two decades, around three-quarters of the refugees who arrived in Nepal to enter India were from the Kham or Amdo regions of eastern Tibet (now primarily incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan)

The Government of India issues an “Identity Certificate” (IC) for Tibetans, who arrive there as refugees. Apart from procuring the IC, they are also required to apply for a permit to exit the country as well as for re-entry so that they could come back to India. Tibetans with this travel document have encountered problems with immigration officials at various airports as many officials are unfamiliar with this kind of travel document.

Although the decision of Delhi High Court in 2016 allowed Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 are eligible to apply for Indian passports. However, the Government of India soon added riders to this policy in June 2017. It listed the following four conditions for Tibetans seeking Indian citizenship: 1) they are required to get their Registration Certificate (RC), and Identity Certificate cancelled; 2) they should not be staying in designated Tibetan refugee settlements; 3) they should submit an undertaking that they no longer enjoy the benefits offered by the Tibetan government-in-exile; and, 4) they should submit a declaration that they no longer enjoy any privileges, including subsidies, by virtue of being RC holders.

The conditions imposed by the Government of India and the neutral position adopted by the Tibetan government-in-exile have put the Tibetans in India in a dilemma.

According to world Report 2018 of Human Right Watch, “the partnership posed an increased risk to Nepal’s population of Tibetan refugees due to increased cooperation between Nepal and China’s border security forces.”

United Nations and the European Union have taken stock of the plight of Tibetan Refugee in Nepal. The UNHCR has strongly advocated for protecting the rights of the Tibetan refugees by urging the Nepal government to grant them official documentation.

India banned Tibetans from holding rallies for Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10th in Delhi this year. A memo was circulated under the direction of India’s Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale, discouraging Indian officials from attending the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA’s) events. India is now seen to be treading more carefully with China on the Doklam border issue.

Recent years have seen an increase in China’s global influence more than ever before, and it has become apparent that China is now the world’s foremost superpower.

Hence it is not surprising to see Nepal and even India taking the necessary steps to create a closer relationship with China, and distancing themselves from the refugee’s leadership.