Our visit to Agra will remain a cherished memory and one of the highlights of our 7-month journey – however, not for the famous but tourist- and tout-infested Taj Mahal, but for an altogether more personal reason. For the past 15 years, I have been exchanging letters regularly – since she was 6 years old until now – with my Tibetan god-daughter, Tenzin. Despite the distance and this being our first contact in person, the connection was immediate, warm and genuine. It felt like a homecoming and finally meeting a cherished member of our family.
This meeting was touching and inspiring, but also left me with a long-lasting sense of sorrow as I realised the extent of the hardships that the Tibetan people in exile have to face.
Since my trip to Nepal in 2000, close to the Tibetan kingdom of Mustang in the Annapurna region, I started to develop an interest in Tibetan culture and Buddhism. That led me to a conference held by the Dalai Lama in Paris later that year. At the venue, a number of charities and various organisations related to the Tibetan cause were holding stalls. I picked up a leaflet of “Aide à l’Enfance Tibétaine” (Support to Tibetan Children). This NGO was founded in 1981 under the patronage of the Dalai Lama and his sister, Jetsun Pema, and has since then provided support to Tibetan people in exile, primarily providing access to education for children and support for the elderly.
Moved by the cause, I decided to sponsor a little girl and an elderly man, both living in Pokhara, Nepal. Tenzin, third born in a family of five children, was 6-years old at the time.
I received her profile alongside a handful of photos of her and her family. She looked beautiful, a little camera-sky but with a special spark in her eyes. Since that time, we have faithfully exchanged letters. First, drawings with the hesitant signature of a little girl learning to write, then short letters and primary school reports and later, longer letters from a teenager who was growing and moving around. At the age of 17, in year 11, she moved to India to further her studies.
All this time, I kept the letters and drawings in a dedicated folder, alongside the newsletters from the NGO. Old-fashioned that I am, it never crossed my mind to exchange email addresses to make the communication more fluid.
In March this year, our dear friend Andrew was staying with us in Hong Kong on his way to Nepal. During his month-long stay there, he was planning to go to Pokhara. He kindly agreed to try to find and meet Tenzin’s family. I gathered the information that I had from the early days of our relationship: the name of her primary school and of her settlement, and some photos. And with that scant information he went.
A couple of weeks later, he excitedly reported that he had managed to find her family and that had spent a day with Tenzin’s mum, grandmother and older brother. He took plenty of photos and even recorded a conversation with her mum, with a neighbour kindly translating in broken English.
He told me afterwards that despite the impossibility to communicate in their respective language, he felt in her eyes and in the pressing of her hands the gratitude of this dignified woman who had had a hard life. Tears welled up within me when I sat in bed going through Andrew’s emails, photos and audio recordings. Together with her mum, they called Tenzin in India. They exchanged email addresses and mobile numbers.
That meeting immediately transformed my relationship with Tenzin. Being able to communicate more frequently and rapidly on emails made the relationship more “real”. I realised that somehow I had frozen this little girl in time. I hadn’t fully taken in that she was now a 21-year old young woman, studying in Dharamsala, India, at a critical time in her life where she is transitioning towards independence and working life.
When India made it onto our itinerary, I got in touch with her, hoping to be able to meet – finally. Unfortunately, our time in India didn’t allow us to go up to Dharamsala, but Tenzin was determined to meet us wherever was possible. We were touched that she agreed to travel all the way to Agra.
The couple of days together were magical that will forever remain etched in my mind. And Agra for me will remain associated with this extraordinary connection with my dear god-daughter, far more than with the Taj Mahal, however beautiful it is.
I was touched by how we managed to connect despite our different cultures, languages, background and life experience. Tenzin was candid and open, and I felt a genuine attempt to understand each other. She shared more about her and her family’s life stories, her aspirations, her worries. I also asked a lot of questions to try to understand the situation of the Tibetan people in exile. I learned a lot. And I was saddened and at times outraged by what I learned.
First and foremost, I was touched by the extraordinary resilience of this refugee population, their determination to live and to make a live worth living, almost in defiance against the odds. I was impressed by the resourcefulness of this community.
What came to a shock to me was the increasingly untenable situation and mistreatment of the Tibetan people in Nepal. India has been a lot more generous and magnanimous in their treatment of the Tibetan population, but still their situation is often difficult. And I had never pondered exactly what the lack of citizenship meant for these displaced people who will most likely not have any chance to ever go back “home”.
I have always thought of education as a way to break the circle of poverty, the key to give the under-privileged a chance to build a better life for themselves, for their family and hopefully for their community – that’s the well known image of “teaching someone how to fish”.
But I had never fully realised that in the case of Tibetan refugees and people in exile, their very foundation is unstable by virtue of not having a citizenship or belonging to any country. Whatever diploma or job you may get, the rug may be pulled from under your feet anytime; whatever you build, it may crumble like a house of cards; however strong and well-equipped for life you are, you remain on shaky ground. At any time, you may lose your right to be where you are and be denied of the right to be anywhere. You cannot own property. You often cannot travel abroad.
Citizenship, an undeniable right to live in a country with full civil rights, may seem in theory like a higher order aspiration after more basic survival needs. But in practice, it is one of the most fundamental rights of all, and the foundation any human being needs to build a life and a future for him/her and for his/her family.
It’s something we have almost taken for granted as we travel relatively easily from country to country, and knowing that however far from home, we still have certain rights afforded by our citizenship and access to resources for support or assistance if needed. In the case of Tibetan people in exile, the majority don’t even have a country to call home, a place where they have the right to be, and many do not have any form of identity, documentation or civil rights associated with citizenship.
The treatment of Tibetans in Nepal has severely deteriorated since the early 1990s and more markedly since 2008 – as the country has tightened its ties with China, to the point where Nepal takes directions from China when it comes to the Tibetan population on their soil. As the former Nepali PM stated unambiguously in 2012: “Nepal attaches great importance to China’s core interests, firmly adheres to the One-China policy and deems Taiwan and Tibet as an integral part of China. The Nepali government will never allow any anti-China activities on its territory.”
From 1959, a lot of Tibetans have crossed the border into Nepal; while many carried on to India, some stayed and settled down in Nepal. As of today, out of approximately 150,000 Tibetans living in exile, 15,000 to 20,000 live in Nepal (as a comparison, about 100,000 live in India).
At the start, despite the fact that Nepal didn’t recognise them as refugees (which would give them some legal protection and rights under international law), they were issued Refugee Certificates (“RC”), which would give them the right to reside in Nepal and would be their only proof of identity and residence.
Since 1989 and following a diplomatic rapprochement with China, Nepal has stopped allowing Tibetan refugees to settle on their soil. They have thus stopped issuing RCs to people arriving after that date. More dramatically, they have also stopped issuing RCs to the children of RC holders born after 1980.
In the case of Tenzin, her grandmother left Tibet in 1959 and settled down in the Annapurna region in Nepal. Tenzin’s mother was born there, so was Tenzin. She is third generation Tibetan born in Nepal and yet she has no rights to citizenship whatsoever.
Very few of the Tibetans manage to acquire citizenship. The 2006 Citizen Act, which grants citizenship to any person born before 1990 in Nepal and having domiciled permanently, does not apply to children of Tibetan refugees.
In effect, Nepal has rendered those people stateless, in an utterly precarious situation. Illustrating bluntly their predicament, the Deputy Inspector General of Police was happy to be quoted stating that “most Tibetans in Nepal have no legal passport, visa, Nepali ID, or even refugee ID. They are illegal residents. Actually, we should deport them. We haven’t done that because of the pressure from the UNHCR. […] So, for the moment we have dropped [the idea of deporting them.]”
This vulnerability permeates all aspects of daily life. The Tibetan population is denied right of ownership of land, house or offices. The only exception that was tolerated was the ownership of a motorbike: the procedure for application and renewal of driving licence was pretty lenient, as it is such an essential mode of transportation in the region. But since 2011, the district of Kathmandu has made the process more stringent than ever and hundreds of Tibetans have been unable to renew their licence. This hardship is further compounded by the role that driving licence was playing as an alternative ID proof for Tibetans who have been denied an RC.
The Tibetan youth are denied education at the Nepali public schools, putting financial pressure on the parents for them to pay private school fees.
As a consequence of the marginalisation of the Tibetan population and their lack of ID documentation, it has become increasingly hard for them to find a job that would allow them to earn a livelihood. Nepali business owners are wary of hiring workers with no identification papers and even those with ID find prospective employers reluctant to be associated with a population that is under excessive police scrutiny.
In addition to this erosion of rights and opportunities, there is a growing state of insecurity since 2008 after China stepped up the pressure on Nepal following the uprising in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Quoting the Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) report, “Beijing sees the presence of a large Tibetan community, the ties they maintain with Tibetans in China, and the fact that the long border along the Himalayas can still be crossed clandestinely as critical factors that must be addressed to prevent challenges to its rule in Tibet”. As the recipient of significant direct investment and aid from China, Nepal is a willing partner in implementing restrictions on Tibetan people:
- Nepal has restricted the Tibetan people’s freedom of expression and right to public gathering in its interim Constitution, arguing there were rights applying to its citizens only. This is in breach of the UN Human Rights Committee’s provisions but Nepal is quite happy to admit that its foreign policy commitments to China supersede its legal obligations (2009 interview with Deputy Inspector General of Police).
- Nepal sends back hundreds of refugees freshly arrived on their soil across the border, annually, in breach of many treaties that establish the principle of non-refoulement. This principle, which has become a customary rule of international law, states that “refugees should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened, and that no person should be returned to a place where he or she would be subjected to torture or to cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment” (source: UN Human Rights Committee).
- Increasingly, Nepal is breaching its “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with the UNHCR whereby it committed in 1989 to allow for the safe passage of Tibetan refugees though its soil to reach India.
- Those actions have been scarily effective, with the number of refugees reaching Kathmandu safely decreasing from 2,000 to 3,000 a year before 2008, to under 1,000 a year between 2008 to 2011 and 171 only in 2013.
- The HRW group has documented the routine arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, abuses, threats of deportation and intimidations of Tibetans in Nepal.
- Nepal has committed to share intelligence with China on any Tibet-related activities and China is providing training to Nepal’s police forces. The HRW group has also established that Chinese law enforcement personnel operate unlawfully in Nepal.
- Nepal border officials are making it much harder for Tibetan youths resident in Nepal who study in India (with appropriate student visa status) to be able to cross to border to visit their family back home in Nepal.
One of the many requests to different stakeholders from the HRW group is for them to “work with the Nepal government and UNHCR to promote and facilitate the third-country resettlement of Tibetan refugees in appropriate cases, such as refugees who need to be resettled for protection reasons, for stateless Tibetans with ties to third countries, or for refugees for whom other durable solutions are not feasible in the foreseeable future”. It seems to me that this is maybe where the only hope lies.
In comparison with the situation in Nepal, India has been more generous in its dealing with the Tibetan refugee population and this even before the Dalia Lama’s escape to India. Later, the Indian Government accepted the formation of the Tibetan Government in exile on its soil and has welcomed thousands of refugees annually. The Tibetan population in India is now north of 100,000.
While India is not a party to the UN Convention on Refugees, the country does issue Registration Certificates (“RC”) and can issue travel documents for travel abroad. It is possible for Tibetans to obtain Indian citizenship: the 1955’s Indian Citizen Act states foreigners who have resided in India for 12 years can obtain the citizenship. Interestingly though, it seems that the topic is still taboo among Tibetans. It is unclear how many Tibetans have taken up this option.
Furthermore, by letting the Tibetan leadership getting themselves properly organised, India has effectively allowed for the community to gain some self-sufficiency and to organise social benefits. The Central Tibetan Authority in India offers health services under the Tibetan Medicare System and supervises the education system, from kindergarten to university, with the aim to provide modern education while preserving the Tibetan cultural identity. The Tibetans also have basic rights such as acquiring lands and houses (with some caveats), opening bank accounts etc to begin to build some stability.
Unfortunately, such status in India is offered only to the direct arrivals from the Tibet Autonomous Region in China. As of today, this is not an option for the Tibetan population already settled in Nepal. They may be granted student visas for bona fide studies, but no more.
Despite the dire situation in Nepal for this displaced population, there is some hope. Humans are incredibly resilient and incredibly gifted at keeping hope for better days, for reason and humanity to prevail, for the injustice to be repaired, for someone at some point to wake up and realise that this situation just cannot continue, that a people cannot be treated like this, just because they didn’t want to live under a regime that they didn’t agree with. But at times, when the hardships are just overwhelming, when the injustice fells too great, when the fear becomes acute, hope gives way to discouragement and helplessness. I sensed in Tenzin that innate human resiliency, the deep-rooted faith of the Tibetan people, the strong sense of community within those in exile. This human spirit, and support from some corners of the international community, give hope and sustain the effort to preserve their identity and way of life.
Our 3 days with Tenzin were a very special time. Then we had to go our separate ways, with promises to meet again but uncertain when it would be. Our parting was emotional. I was left with an deep feeling of sorrow for a long time afterwards: for the hardship that these people are faced with; for the difficulty for them to build a stable future, without uncertainty and fear, with the rights that shouldn’t be denied to any man or woman; for the hopelessness that I felt on how to really help as it seems that the solution doesn’t lie with individual action but with the Nepalese and foreign governments recognising the issue and accepting to provide an alternative.
The plight of the refugees in Europe has been dominating the news headlines throughout 2015. While initial efforts must be concentrated on the basic needs of providing adequate food and shelter for fellow humans in need, I hope that the longer terms needs of providing civil rights and will also be appropriately addressed in their new home countries – unlike what I have learned about the Tibetan situation in Nepal.
I wanted to keep the stories that Tenzin shared with me private so I searched for public information on the treatments of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. I found this very informative and detailed report from the Human Right Watch (HRW) group. I referenced it on several occasions but in addition to the explicit references, it has helped me greatly to articulate and validate the cases that Tenzin shared with me more anecdotally. The report is quite long but one can get the gist of the issue by reading only the summary pages 1 to 11 or this linked article from HRW.
For more about the situation of Tibetan refugees in India, I found the linked report by the Swiss Federal Department for Justice and Police well researched and informative.
Note that Nepal is not a state party to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) or to its Protocol (1967), which define the status of refugees under international law and outline certain obligations for host states. Nor is India for that matter. Irrespective of this, obligations arise from other treaties that Nepal are a party to. These are described in details in the HRW report.
I use the terms “refugees” and “Tibetan residents in Nepal” loosely. The largest majority of Tibetans in Nepal aren’t recognised officially as refugees (that would acknowledge that they have grounds to want to leave China) and a large number don’t have any form of ID that would establish a residency right. India doesn’t treat the Tibetan population as refugees either.
There are some interesting information about stateless people and the coordinated international focus and effort to reduce this population on this UNHCR page.
Click here for more about Aide à l’Enfance Tibétaine.
For other charitable organisations supporting the Tibetan community and effective ways to give, please contact me.