Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Uncertain Success: The Tibetan Refugee Community in South Asia

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Uncertain Success: The Tibetan Refugee Community in South Asia

Article excerpt

More than 150,000 Tibetan refugees have fled their homeland for South Asia since 1959 since the first uprising against the Chinese. Despite fleeing to developing countries that were not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, their high levels of self-reliance mean they are often described as a 'successful' refugee community. This success has generally been put down to the establishment of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), a government-in-exile that delivers services such as health and education to Tibetans. Along with the delivery of these services, however, the CTA has also maintained a policy that encourages Tibetans to continue living as stateless persons in South Asia. This they argue is a necessary basis for the preservation of their culture and society. Yet as no South Asian state is a signatory to the refugee convention or has domestic laws granting refugees status or rights, it has also led the Tibetan exile community into three or four generations of vulnerable statelessness. As this continuing unresolved status has had damaging side effects, this paper asks if it is time for a change to this approach.

Introduction : New Delhi, March 2012

In many ways the Tibetan protesters who gathered on New Delhi's streets in late March 2012 personified this exiled community's well-heralded 'success'. They were a mixed group, but by the standards of the international refugee community, they were all relatively privileged.

Some of them had grown up in South Asia - in India or the neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bhutan - as the second or third generation descendants of those who fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama after the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. As the descendants of these 'splittists' they were not welcome back in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Yet they had benefited from their parents' and grandparents' efforts to establish a viable Tibetan community in South Asia, which had subsequently been roundly praised for its self-sufficiency (Norbu 1994: 4; Kharat 2003: 281-320; Prost 2006: 235). In particular, they had received aid from the government-in-exile for Tibetans, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), which had provided them with health services and often granted their parents an income through its agricultural and economic projects (CTA Planning Commission 2013: 25-27, 28-30). Perhaps even more importantly, for the first time in the Tibetan people's history, its policy of universal education had also ensured they all had at least ten years of education (Bangsbo 2008: 189-212).

Those amongst the group who had arrived more recently from Tibet had not received the same kind of life-long support from the CTA. These refugees belonged to a segment of the Tibetan exile community that was much more vulnerable than their more established compatriots. Members of this group had grown up in a very different society and were often the survivors of trauma, two conditions that made it much more difficult for them to adapt to South Asian society (Mills et al. 2005: 2). Yet although it might not have seemed like it to them, in comparison to many other refugees around the world they too were in a relatively privileged position. On arrival, for example, they would have been received by a well- ordered support network offering them financial and social assistance, including several years of education in Hindi and English, along with vocational and cultural training (MacPherson et al. 2008).

What was about to happen on the streets of New Delhi, however, showed that no matter what their community's relative successes had been, as stateless people their position was still very insecure.

The protesters in New Delhi had congregated to register their anger at both the situation in their homeland and India's invitation to one of the people they held most responsible for it: the then President of China, Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao had been the Governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region before he became the President of the entire People's Republic (Ewing 2003: 22-25) and was regarded with particular disdain by many exiled Tibetans. …

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