Exiled For Life
By Suzan Okar
12 October, 2007
India shelters one of the largest
refugee populations in the world. Tibetans are the largest refugee group
in South Asia and majority of them live in India. They maintain a unique
culture and are pursuing a peaceful struggle. Before drawing a conclusion
about the treatment meted out to Tibetans in India one must first look
at international norms for treatment of refugees.
The international norms of treatment of refugees are embodied in the
United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 and
its 1967 Protocol. The latter removes temporal and geographical limitations.
In these two documents, 34 rights and freedoms are granted to refugees.
World's 137 countries have signed the convention and the subsequent
protocol. Contracting parties can express their reservations to all
the articles contained in the Convention and Protocol except Article
3 non-discrimination; Art 1- refugee definition; Art 4- freedom of religion;
Art 16(1)- access to courts; and Art. 33 - the principle of non-refoulement
(a pre-condition against rejection and deportation of any person trying
to cross borders in case this could endanger life of the entrant). India
has yet to sign the Convention and its Protocol, leaving Indian policy
outside the jurisdiction of UN supervision.
In its 1998 Country Report on India, the US Committee for Refugees highlighted
that only 18,500 refugees had received United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) protection out of 3,00,000. India, by not signing
the 1951 Convention, in essence, has refused substantial international
assistance from other UN member states. Even though India maintains
that refugee convention places a large burden on the host state, the
UNHCR would actually bear a substantial part of the burden by providing
most important financial assistance to the refugees arriving in India.
India's current policy regarding refugees within its borders is not
to assist and the refugee situation is handled on ad-hoc basis.
Foreigners in India
There are three sets of laws
that deal with foreigners in India. They are: The Registration of Foreigners
Act 1939, The Foreigners Act 1946 and The Foreigners Order 1948. Under
Section 2 of the Registration of Foreigners Act, the term foreigner
is defined as "a person who is not a citizen of India," which
can refer to aliens of any kind including immigrants, refugees and tourists.
The Indian government has
the power to restrict movement inside India, limit employment opportunities,
control the opportunity to associate and the right to return refugees
to the country they have fled from. Section 3 of the Foreigners Order
gives government the power to either grant or refuse entry if a person
does not possess a valid passport. If the technical criteria are not
fulfilled, the government can refoule refugees at the border, which
is in direct violation of the 1951 convention and customary international
Section 3 (2) of the Act permits the Indian government to require all
refugees living in India to reside in special designated areas. Thus,
this section constitutes a restriction on movement. India can confine
foreigners to refugee camps, conduct periodic camp inspections, limit
foreigners' possessions and prohibit selected activities.
The Citizenship Act
Section 3 of the Citizen
Act of 1955 outlines the conditions necessary to gain citizenship. Citizenship
by birth is granted to every person born in India, or persons who otherwise
have Indian citizenship. A person born outside India can be granted
citizenship if his father was Indian at the time of the applicant's
Tibet always had its own
tradition of life separated from Han for 1,500 years. Tibet is culturally
different from China. Tibetans are Buddhist, their culture and economic
traditions are based on a harsh climate and geographic conditions. The
history demonstrated that Tibet was an independent state before the
13th century and signed a treaty with China in 821 and 822. For the
next 300 years no diplomatic contact was noted between China and Tibet.
Although in 13th Century Tibet was administrated separately by Mongols
through local Tibetan rulers, it was not ruled directly as the Chinese
were during the Yuan Dynasty. Even the dominance of a third party was
separate. From 1349 to 1642 (Second Kingdom), Tibet was a kingdom free
from Mongol or Chinese control, even though the Chinese Ming Dynasty
granted titles to certain Tibetan officials, they had no effective control
in Tibet's internal or external affairs. During the Qing Dynasty, the
Dalai Lama and the Manchu Emperors re-established the cho-yon relationship
that was based on a protectorate mechanism. The Ambans who were the
representatives of the Emperor in Lhasa were given authority to exercise
power over Tibet's external affairs, but this was presented to the Tibetan
leader as a suggestion and not an imposition of the implementation of
the imperial power. The cho-yon relationship ended without any effective
control over Tibet. In light of historical evidence the claims of sovereignty
of China over Tibet must be totally rejected.
Refoulement of persons seeking
asylum is a violation of customary international law. The principle
of non-refoulement prevents a country from expelling refugees to countries
where their lives and liberties would be threatened, as well as standards
codified in Refugee Convention. The 137 signatory state parties consistently
practice non-refoulement in their determination whether to grant entrance
to people seeking asylum. The principle of non- refoulement is applicable
regardless of whether states are parties to the convention or not. The
practice of non-refoulement by most states, as well as the respect for
the policy as a legal obligation, has rendered non-refoulement a customary
Far from following the international standards for treatment of refugees,
India's treatment of various refugees is based on political grounds,
thus, creating an unstable and ever-changing domestic policy. India
grants privileges to certain refugees based on bilateral and multilateral
political relations with other states. Tibetan refugees are the largest
refugee group in India. Before appreciating the Tibetan refugees' condition
and means of livelihood in India, we must first examine their situation
from the very beginning of the exodus and the different phases of their
Phases of Displacement
Religious persecutions, political
repression, barriers to endogamous marriages by the Chinese government
and the will to follow Dalai Lama are some of the reasons for displacement.
Tibetans may be the sole refugee community who do not live in refugee
camps but in settlements.
Tibetan refugees began to enter India in 1959, after communist China's
invasion and annexation of Tibet. Two phases of displacement have been
noted. The first was the displacement in 1959, and the second was the
exodus in the early eighties. The first batch of Tibetans crossed over
to India on March 31, 1959, when 85.000 Tibetans followed their spiritual
and temporal leader, the Dalai Lama. The second exodus started in the
early eighties during the period when Tibet was open to trade and tourism.
Between 1986 and 1996, 25,000 Tibetans arrived in India. About 44 per
cent of them were monks and nuns. In 1999, another 2,200 Tibetans arrived.
The Indian government allowed 2,200 to enter the country, but the majority
have not been granted legal residence. In 1998, the Tibetan administration
in India declared that the number of Tibetan refugees had reached 1,18,000.
The Indian government allows the entry of any Tibetan refugee on the
Dalai Lama's pledge that they personally abstain from violent and political
Over 80,000 fled the Chinese occupation of their country and established
a refugee community in Dharamsala. The years at the beginning were the
most difficult. Many Tibetans coming from the high Tibetan plateau succumbed
to tropical diseases and heat exhaustion. With the help of the Indian
government, 54 agricultural and agro-industrial based refugee settlements
were gradually established. The idea was to resettle Tibetans in homogeneous
communities where they would be able to preserve their culture and traditions,
enabling them to become self-sufficient.
We the Nation
The capital city of Tibet,
Lhasa was the headquarters of the Tibetan government. From an administrative
point of view, Tibet had a fully functioning government headed by Dalai
Lama. The central administration was composed of a cabinet of ministers
called the Kashag, a national assembly named Tsongdu and a complex bureaucracy
to govern the large territory of Tibet. The judicial system was based
on a system developed over the 7 th century, the 14th century, by the
fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century and by the thirteenth Dalai Lama
in the 20th century. The government appointed magistrates and the local
authority was administrated in order to satisfy the Tibetans interests
through civil services, taxation mechanisms, country's postal services
and commanded the army. Tibet had a different currency from the Chinese
Yuan (the tangka was a currency of Tibet until 1941, it was initially
issued in the form of silver coin s and tangka banknotes were issued
between 1912 and 1941) and issued internationally recognised passports.
While only state entities can enter into treaties with other states.
Tibet signed treaties as a sovereign country with several states such
as Great Britain, Nepal, Ladakh and Mongolia. Tibet maintained diplomatic
and economic relations with the latter and other states as British India,
Bhutan, Sikkim, China and to a limited extent with Russia and Japan.
Dharamshala and Tibet
The democratic administration
in exile was set up in Dharamsala. Tibetan schools were established
following a modern secular educational model with Tibetan language,
literature, culture and religion classes. There are 85 such Tibetan
schools throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan. About 70 per cent of Tibetan
children attend school. Centres of propagation, preservation and perpetuation
of Tibetan culture and tradition were also setup to teach the art of
carpet weaving and wood and metal carving. Besides this, about 200 monasteries
and nunneries were established to revive religious education and tradition.
Consequently, Tibetans have been able to hold to their traditions in
India, which was virtually destroyed in Tibet.
In the 1960's and 1970's,
India gave preferential treatment to Tibetan refugees over others. This
was mainly because the Dalai Lama sought shelter for himself and his
people; China's invasion of Tibet played a key role in this where the
world could see the plight of Tibetans. As a result of these exigencies,
India allowed the Dalai Lama to establish a Tibetan government in exile
called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). It is based at Dharamsala.
Yet India has not officially recognised it. Although no foreigners can
own property in India, the Indian government provided land and housing
to establish Tibetan farming settlements. The Indian government granted
Tibetan refugees, who entered India in the 1970's, Indian residency
(or resident status) for purposes of identification, employment and
domestic travel. As a result, Indian identification certificates were
awarded to these individuals. This allowed them to travel outside India
for things like medical treatment. The Indian government stressed that
it has no obligation to assist refugees, it chose to grant these early
Tibetan refugees services and opportunities that no other group enjoys.
Yet India's lack of clear
standards for treatment of refugees is a violation of international
norms. Its policy is discriminatory and inequitable even to the members
of the same group. Prior to 1980's, Tibetans received adequate assistance
from the Indian government. However, this greatly declined forcing Tibetans
refugees to often live in sub-human conditions. The increased numbers
of Tibetans coming after the 1980's had put greater pressure on services
provided by India. Although India continued to admit Tibetan refugees
after the 1980's, the government has denied these Tibetans both residential
and identification certificates. This has created serious problems because
employment, international travel and naturalisation hinge on possession
of these documents. As a result, these rights are unattainable for the
The Indian government admitted 25,000 Tibetans between the years of
1986 and 1996. Yet the government refused to grant them new allotments
of land, which led to overpopulation, unemployment and food shortages
for the poor refugees. Press too reported incidents of Indian government
returning to China small groups of refugees trying to enter India. The
Indian government, in an attempt to improve its relations with China
declined assistance to the Tibetan refugees. China can see this assistance
as Indian support for a Tibetan state and as an affront to Beijing's
sovereign claim over Tibet. The decreasing assistance is aimed at stopping
the overpopulation of Tibetan settlement.
According to the records
collected between 1994 and 1996, there were 65.000 Tibetan refugees
residing in India. About 10.000 were monks living in monasteries in
south India and the rest of the refugees were living in 37 settlements
widely distributed around India. The data was collected by the health
department of the Tibetan government in exile, through house visits
and designated liaisons in the monasteries that provided monthly reports.
Over the past 10 years, the data shows a small immigration of new civilian
refugees compared to a large number of monks coming to settle to monasteries.
People between 15 and 25 years of age constitute the majority of the
Tibetan population in exile.
Refugees born in India are
educated through secondary schools as compared to those born in Tibet
who are often illiterate. The primary occupations of Tibetan refugees
in India are; 27 per cent education, 16 per cent farming, 6.5 per cent
woollen wares selling, 2.4 per cent unemployed and 6.5 per cent inactive
(young children and elderly persons).
India did not support an
independent Tibet despite giving asylum to Tibetans. At the beginning,
they were in transit camps such as Misamari in Assam, Buxa in West Bengal,
and then, they moved to Sikkim, Karnataka, Laddakh in Jammu & Kashmir
and Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. Relations with the host community
must be examined under two aspects. The first is the governmental level,
and the other at the level of community. The Indian government neither
supports Tibet's autonomy nor recognises the Tibetan government in exile.
The Tibetan refugees live in relative isolation from local people in
order to preserve their distinct religion and culture. Generally, any
interaction between the Tibetans and the locals is harmonious. But in
recent years they have been facing a gradual rejection, because of the
local population getting averse. The latter feel threatened by the demographical
and cultural impact of refugees. It has been alleged that Tibetans were
buying up large tracts of land through "benami transactions".
("Benami transactions" are purchases in false names of other
persons, who do not pay and merely lend their name, while the real title
vests with another person who actually purchased the property and is
the benefiting owner). Parliament totally prohibited the Benami transactions.
New Tibetan Refugees
New refugees who come to
India can be separated into two groups: those who came with a Chinese
permit and those who escaped and came without Chinese permit. In order
to obtain a Chinese permit, the applicant must pay 5,000 to 6,000 Yuan.
When applying for a permit, one has to specify the purpose of the visit
like pilgrimage or meeting relatives. One of their family members is
kept as hostage/security against their return. After reaching Kathmandu,
they travel to India secretly without alerting the Chinese authorities,
they have to return to Tibet before their permit expires. Mainly, people
come for blessings and religious teachings from the Dalai Lama. They
come mostly during winter months. People who escape without Chinese
permit usually pretend to go on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash. Once they
reach Mount Kailash, they walk across Himalayas into Nepal with little
or no belongings, except bare minimum clothing. They face many difficulties
when trying to cross into Nepal such as frostbite, starvation, sexual
harassment by border policemen, possible arrest en route and deportation
at the border and constant fear of death.
From Tibet to Dharamsala
The journey from Mount Kailash
to Kathmandu takes about one-and-half-month during inclement winter
months (November to February) in case they escape the attention of the
border police, or escape the snowstorms. Generally, people feel safe
when they move in groups. Finally, they land up at the Kathmandu Reception
Centre haggard, malnourished and emaciated.
Kathmandu Reception Centre
(KRC) arranges food, accommodation and medical care during their stay
in Nepal and assists their travel to India; as well as, their release
from police custody if necessary. The new arrivals are screened by UNHCR
in Kathmandu to determine whether they are refugees. If categorised
as a refugee, they receive 2,700 Nepalese rupees each (1,530 INR). If
there are two or more members in the family, the head gets 2,700 Nepalese
rupees and dependants receive 900 rupees each. This amount covers expenses
in Kathmandu and travel to Delhi. In Kathmandu, Tibetan refugees fill
a form stating their personal details and the purpose for travelling
to India. All these formalities take 7 to 10 days.
After spending usually three
days at the Delhi Reception Centre (DRC), the refugees are sent to Dharamsala
or to monasteries or nunneries in southern Tibetan settlements, depending
on the data provided by them on the form, which each person carries
with him or her. During their stay in Delhi, food and accommodation
are provided free of charge. For persons going to a monastery or nunnery,
DRC takes care of travelling arrangements to south India.
Dharamsala Reception Centre
(DhRC) gives free food, accommodation and medical care during their
stay for a period not exceeding 15 days. Office Reception Centre (ORC)
arranges audiences with the Dalai Lama and processes their admission
to various institutions. Travelling expenses are paid by ORC.
India plays important role
vis-à-vis refugees because of its position as a leader in South
Asia, setting an example for other states in the region. Yet, India
does not conform to the international norms for the treatment of refugees.
It applies policies in a discriminatory and inequitable manner among
Tibetan refugees. The adoption of basic international standards is essential
because this will ensure international assistance and monitoring of
refugee groups. Thus, India must accede to the Refugee Convention and
The author is a France-based
Turkish human rights lawyer
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