Tibet in Exile: Refugees or Citizens?
When the administration of Lobsang Sangay came into office in 2011, the self-immolations exploded, handing the CTA a rare opportunity to articulate the causes of the escalating crisis in Tibet and the plight of the Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. Images of burning nationalists in Tibet adds to a fearful tremor racing through Asia about China’s rise, with PLA battle ships advancing in in South China Sea and the explosion of hydro-dam construction in Tibet, yoking the Mekong, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers. (Visit Michael Buckley’s comprehensive website; meltdownintibet.com).
But the Tibet movement has always had scant resources compared to the mighty People’s Republic of China. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the PRC has paid millions to retain the services of the New York public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, to clean up their image and promote the party line that the CCP’s unique mélange of capitalism and communism is both an economic success and a model of governance.
Unfortunately, it works: despite the tarnishing of the “China Brand”, by the recent Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng affairs, foreign capital still flows into the China. There will be no international sanctions levied upon the PRC for torturing men, women and children in distant Tibet, whereas the CCP withholds trade and cancels high level meetings with any government that receives HH Dalai Lama, and gets away with it.
At a time when people inside Tibet are burning alive, when after 61 years of occupation the PRC has installed a formidable military infrastructure across the Tibetan plateau, when no UN Peacekeeping Forces or NATO troops will rescue the victims of China’s police state, it is time be realistic about how to assist the Tibetan people at this perilous hour.
Resolutions condemning Chinese atrocities in Tibet add symbolic value and keep the issue on the radar screen, but the only Tibetan community that the CTA and Mr. Sangay can directly influence is in exile. The Kashag has just released a list of achievements of the past year. The Tibet Core is a welcome new program, as is the reform of the school system. The most significant achievement is that Indian government has “kindly agreed to extend the validity of the Registration Certificate for Tibetans born in India as well as those who have held RC for twenty years or more to five years.”
While this is a positive step, the CTA must reassess the hard facts about the fragile state of the Tibetan exiles. Tibetans cannot remain stateless refugees much longer; at 53 years, 2nd to the Palestinians as the world’s longest unresolved refugee crisis. In the 21st century there is less room and tolerance for refugees all across South Asia. Any Tibetan with a refugee card risks life and limb if they go back to Tibet — unless they were recruited to spy for the Chinese Communist Party — thus repatriation to the homeland is out of the question.
I urge Mr. Sangay and the CTA to pay greater attention to matters of utmost importance; the legal status of the Tibetans in exile, expanding options for citizenship in India, and initiating re-settlement programs to other nations.
Tibetans in India: Permanent Refugees?
That Tibetans can now renew Indian residency permits every 5 years provides a measure of security, but it still consigns Tibetans to refugee status, which prevents many educated, talented and integrated individuals from fully participating in Indian society. In the 1970’s the Indian government offered to make all Tibetan refugees citizens of India, but the CTA declined the offer. Wangyal, a retired CTA official said; “Many of us who were involved in those discussions now think turning down the generous offer from the Indian government was a mistake. But there was still a belief that we would soon go back to Tibet, which, in hindsight, was unrealistic even then. If this third generation of Tibetans in exile had Indian citizenship, the Tibetan community would have far more resources and be much stronger today.”
Previous CTA administrations did not pursue Indian citizenship for Tibetan refugees. A number of Tibetans acquired Indian citizenship on their own, but research indicates that only 1-3% of Tibetans who are eligible for Indian citizenship apply. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services report that both Tibetans born in Tibet who escaped to India and those born in India to Tibetan refugee parents, face legal obstacles to obtaining Indian citizenship.
Many Tibetans, Indians and international supporters agree; the exile community should commence a new dialogue with the Indian government on securing citizenship for Tibetans, especially those born in India. In a highly publicized 3-year court case, Namgyal Lagyari of Dehradun attained Indian citizenship, which has inspired other Tibetans born in India to do the same.
Tibetans in India need better access to legal resources and education, to fully understand UN and Indian refugee charters and laws, to know the full scope of rights and restrictions that apply to refugees, and to pursue citizenship or immigration through legal processes.
The Quest for the West
Switzerland was the first nation to grant citizenship to a small number of Tibetan refugees in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s a visionary Canadian Ambassador in New Delhi took an especial interest in the Tibetan refugees and managed a resettlement project, which brought whole families together. The US Immigration Act of 1990 approved 1000 immigrant visas to Tibetans in India and Nepal. But in the American system, a single individual is selected by a lottery. Many relatives spent years waiting for reunification visas, straining ties already injured by separation from kinfolk in Chinese Occupied Tibet.
Today, after 23 years, an estimated 10,000 Tibetans have legally immigrated to the USA to join the relative who went first. But the “quest for the west” as it is often termed in the chai stalls of McLeod Ganj and Majnu ka Tila, has caused serious dislocations and fractures. Many in India, constrained by permanent refugee status into a third generation, feel great pressure to try to go west by any means possible.
Most Tibetan refugees are poorly informed about immigration laws and procedures, and are therefore easily misinformed, exploited and harmed by visa brokers.
Visa Brokers, Passport Rings
Refugee groups are especially vulnerable to exploitation, bribery and coercion, and Tibetans are no exception. There are numerous passport and visa brokers operating throughout the Tibetan exile world, from New Delhi to New York. In many cases large sums are paid to visa brokers, who frequently vanish with the cash. Many “clients” of brokers arrive in Manhattan or London, owning a huge debt, which can take several years to pay off. Tibetans who enter Germany as asylum seekers are given a tiny stipend and must live in restricted housing for months or years before they are granted residency, which was not what they expected when cutting the deal with the broker back in Asia.
The US State Dept. has concerns about passport rings operating from Tibet and India, with a well-worn trick, familiar to consular officers; a passport with a US visa is sent back, the photo is changed and a new person enters the USA without having an interview at any consulate.
In recent years, trends have emerged that have caused considerable harm; newly arrived refugees fabricating their date of birth or parentage, to pass as children of Tibetans who entered India before issuance of resident permits for Tibetans was suspended, and Tibetans from India who enter the US and are lured by brokers to claim asylum by fabricating abuse at the hands of Indian officials, or alter documents to pretend they were born in Tibet and thereby qualified for political asylum. Falsifying one’s identity invites disastrous consequences, including deportation and arrest; there are documented cases of INS officials discovering fabricated information and deporting Tibetans back to India.
In the late 1990’s aggressive brokers began collecting funds from Tibetans in India promising a green card based on bogus asylum claims. I was asked to write supporting letters for persons who had advanced money to brokers, so I had the opportunity to read many of these narratives, which alleged relentlessly cruel treatment at the hands of Indian officials. When I asked if the narratives were true, I was told they were not: they had been written by the broker.
I did not support these claims; I was concerned they would cause problems in the future. If the Indian government learned of the schemes, it would be rightly offended — to this day India is the largest donor to the Tibetan refugees — and it would offend HH Dalai Lama, who has never sought to leave his exile home and proudly states; “I am a son of India.”
The Damage Done
In 1998 I received a call from an official at the fraud department of the US Dept. of State in Washington DC, inquiring about a spike in Tibetan refugee asylum claims from India, asking if Tibetans were indeed at risk in India. I forwarded documents from the Indian Home Ministry and the CTA and independent monitoring agencies, with the history of India’s generous care for the Tibetan people and their great esteem for HH Dalai Lama. Surely there are individual cases of exploitation and abuse, but the Indian government deserves praise for its humanitarian service to the Tibetan people and its concern for the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion.
Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from a one Mr. Pema Gashon, then a leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey, and a familiar presence at all New York Tibetan gatherings. Mr. Gashon described his plan to get asylum for Tibetans from India, writing; “we know that our case is not strong so we will pay you any fee you wish if you will get members of Congress and President Clinton to support us.”
I made several copies of the letter, provided them to CTA officials and urged them to investigate the matter and question Mr. Gashon about offering a bribe to a relative of a US Senator, in exchange for false information about India, a country where my father had served as the US envoy in the 1970’s. I was not privy to any information about what if any action was taken, but I know of several individuals who obtained green cards via Mr. Gashon, and others who paid him large sums of cash but did not obtain papers.
Over the past 15 years, such brokers have multiplied. The Tibet Justice Center and other groups have gathered anecdotal evidence of how the brokers operate; inducing their clients to lie to officials, withholding passports to obtain more funds, threatening to deport clients back to India or Tibet: persuading US law firms to work pro bono while taking large sums of cash from anxious clients; stealing passports from clients for the broker’s relatives and friends. There are reports of Tibetan women sold into prostitution rings to pay off the debt. (This is how illegal passport/visa rings operate around the globe).
And now, sadly, Tibetans in India who have legitimate opportunities to visit the USA, for education, business or family reunification, cannot obtain visas. Most are automatically rejected without having any review of their files. Even Fulbright scholars cannot get a fair hearing. Addressing the Tibetan Community at the Kalachakra in Washington, DC, in 2011, HH Dalai Lama asked that people follow legal procedures and not falsify any information for the purpose of obtaining asylum.
The CTA and other US based Tibet support groups in the USA should work with the US Embassy in New Delhi to grant Tibetan visa applicants fair hearings, and with the US congress to pass a new senate resolution authorizing a second US resettlement project. During the 1990 project the US offered to take more than 1000, but the CTA declined. The US is in the process of resettling 60,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin who have been in UNHCR camps since the early 1990’s. The Tibetan refugees are a small population with longstanding support in the US Congress, thus a strong case can be made for issuing more immigrant visas, which would put a lot of unscrupulous visa brokers out of business.
A great many Tibetan refugees are now stranded in the USA without papers, manipulated by brokers and scammers, living on the fringes of a struggling immigrant network. Most immigrant groups in the US have legal advisory teams and legal defense funds; the CTA could also establish a program that provides counsel to refugees, educating them about their legal status, rights and options. The CTA can also open dialogues with embassies in New Delhi about resettlement, to research procedures whereby Tibetans can legally immigrate.
Tibetans in Nepal: No Protection, No Exit
Tibetans in in Nepal are the most vulnerable, neglected, and at risk. In the past decade, following the assassination of King Birendra and the rise of the Maoists, the CTA has lost any means of protecting the large and influential Tibetan network that flourished in the days of the Hindu kingdom, now under assault from Chinese agents and their Maoists puppets.
Said a retired CTA official now living in Kathmandu, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the Tibet issue in Nepal, “Dharamshala made decisions that hurt us badly. They sold off so many businesses, leaving families with no income. When UNHCR was told to remove their protection officer at the Tibet border, by Chinese command, there was no effort made to lobby UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to restore it. When the Tibet office was closed down, the CTA did not negotiate with Nepali, Indian and US officials to save it. Samdhong Rinpoche reduced the number of CTA security staff from 12 to 1, overnight. New refugees from Tibet had to be screened by the CTA security department, to protect the exile community and keep strong relations with India and the USA. So many people are abusing the system to qualify for US visas. Without effective screening there is more abuse. That completely broke down. And now CTA officials are afraid to come to Nepal, even if they have US or Canadian passports. The psychological impact of this has created a refugee victim mentality. We have no leadership.”
After the murder of King Birendra in 2001, Tibetans in Nepal lost the protection of the palace. The US Embassy in Kathmandu conducted a research survey, and proposed resettling a large number of Tibetan refugees in the US. News of this project in Nepal created a classic “pull factor”, whereby Tibetans from India attempted to insert themselves into the process. Said the former CTA official in Nepal; “Dharamshala asked to review all the applicants, and a number of Tibetans from India appeared on the list with no history of being registered in Nepal. The Nepali government got confused, it got bogged down, the Maoists came to power and now they won’t issue exit permits, so it did not happen, which is a great shame.”
The US Congress continues to pressure the Nepali government to grant Tibetans exile permits so they may immigrate to America.
Below is a report from the Kathmandu Post:
“KATHMANDU, FEB 22 2012; “In separate letters addressed to President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai on December 9, three US Congressmen — James P. McGovern, Frank R. Wolf and Joseph R. Pitts have requested Nepal ‘to work with the US government to implement a program that would allow the resettlement of the Tibetan refugees in the United States.’ The letters, sent through Nepal’s mission in US, states that they were ‘deeply concerned over Nepal’s lack of a comprehensive refugee law, delays in the transit of Tibetan refugees through Nepal, and failure to work with the US government to implement a program that would allow the resettlement of he Tibetan refugees in the US’.”
Tibet support groups can lobby UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to engage with the Nepali government about protection, residency papers and exit permits for Tibetan refugees, and work with US Congressmen James P. McGovern, Frank R. Wolf and Joseph R. Pitts, to secure exit permits for Tibetans immigrating to the USA.
Creating a Legal Information Resource Center
Mr. Sangay studied law at Harvard University; his administration has the skills and resources to create a legal information resource and counseling center that will work with governments and refugee support groups to help Tibetans with citizenship, immigration and protection. This will have a tangible impact on the exile community. A young man from Amdo who recently escaped to Nepal told me; “Knowing that HH Dalai Lama is alive and safe in India gives people living under Chinese rule hope. But now I see that China is coming after Tibetans in Nepal. If the exile base is lost, who will speak for the people in Tibet?”