December 6, 2011
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - Tibet's government in exile says there has been a sharp drop in the number of Tibetans fleeing to join the refugee community in Dharamsala.
According to records provided by the reception center for new arrivals from Tibet in Dharamsala, there have been just 2,500 arrivals since 2008. In the years 2004 to 2007, new arrivals totaled 12,000, while this year there have been only 600.
''Since the 2008 Tibet riots in Lhasa, restrictions have become tougher inside Tibet and also along the Tibet-Nepal border, making opportunities for Tibetans to flee much fewer. The repression is such that at some places in Tibet there are more Chinese armed troops than Tibetans,'' said Mingyur Youdon, deputy director of the reception center.
As the vast majority of Tibetans remain piously religious despite their Chinese ruler's communist regime, the decline suggests a clamp down on refugees. However, China has also poured investment into the region, with improving living standards potentially helping it win Tibetans' hearts and minds.
Youdon refutes the view that fewer Tibetans wish to leave Tibet due to improved economic conditions. ''If they do not wish to come here as they did before, then how come so many arrived before 2008? The answer is simple - China is not even giving human rights to Tibetans living in their own homeland''.
Recent arrivals say Beijing has tightened controls on the China-Nepal border and put in place heavy punishments for Tibetans caught trying to cross the border illegally.
''Those who have arrived into exile feel their first breath of freedom while hundreds more are caught trying to flee each month. Many are tortured while detained. Also, Nepal, under the guidelines of Beijing, is deporting all fleeing Tibetans back to Chinese forces.'' said Youdon.
One of the recent arrivals at the reception centre, 27-year-old Lobsang Gyurme from Chamdo prefecture in eastern Tibet, says he had a perilous journey.
''I crossed the high mountains that took me many days and at last I arrived in Nepal where I spotted both Nepalese and Chinese patrol forces working together to stop and detain fleeing Tibetans.'' ''I am a lucky one to get my chance. Staying in Tibet is very risky because of China's toughened policies. They now just do not allow any freedom for Tibetans. I met dozens of Tibetans on my way who wished to flee. They all are waiting for their chance. For now I prefer to live in exile until the day we get freedom,'' says Gyurme.
Another young Tibetan, Pema Lhawang, 22, from U-Tsang prefecture, says religious restrictions inspired him to flee. ''I come into exile here to study as I have always wished to become a monk and learn Buddhist philosophy - something I can't learn back there as we Tibetans are not allowed to worship our most respected spiritual guru the Dalai Lama.''
''When we go to Lhasa, Chinese police check everything. The capital city (of Tibet) is now all Chinese and even the popular language used now is Chinese. Chinese authorities now would put a Tibetan caught trying to flee into prison for several years. Such things have created a lot of fear among Tibetans and many of them are refraining from taking a move,'' said Pema.
Samphel Thupten, a spokesman of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala says, ''China has gained nothing out of this, instead it indicates that it has something terrible to hide. After the clampdown the conditions of Tibetans inside in Tibet are vulnerable and those residing in Nepal face the same fate due to increasing Chinese pressure on the Nepalese government. By and large the situation is very alarming.''
Tibet watchers believe Beijing has tightened its control due to a growing awareness that the exile community is one of the major reasons behind instability in Tibet.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, an associate professor of International Relations at London's University of Westminster relates Beijing's crackdown to Chinese domestic politics.
''The movement of Tibetans between Tibet and India is a function of various factors including the political situation in China, Nepal and to smaller extent India... Before 2008, China did not see this movement as a great source of instability. They certainly discouraged it, but did not prioritize it.
However, the protests across the Tibetan plateau in 2008 changed this. As Beijing sought to blame the protests on 'separatist elements' coming from exile, they also wanted to prevent Tibetans from going out to exile and narrating their stories. This essentially meant a clampdown in the border areas and Chinese military police and border guards treating the escape of any Tibetan as a security threat. ''
For Beijing, the most effective way to stop Tibetans leaving China is through constant monitoring of the Tibet-Nepal border, one of the few escape routes for refugees. China has increased pressure on Nepal to make it difficult for Tibetans to cross the border. Diplomatic cables from the US embassy in New Delhi released by Wikileaks last year described Chinese forces bribing Nepalese police to hand back Tibetans who had successfully made it to the border.
Nepal had allowed arrival Tibetans to be quickly sent on to India under a 1990 informal agreement between the Nepalese government and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). However, recent reports said Tibetan refugees have been detained by Nepalese authorities for illegally crossing the Tibet-Nepal border.
Nepal is also under severe criticism from the West for its treatment of the 25,000 Tibetan refugees in the country. Human-rights groups have accused Kathmandu of random arrests and of harassing the community.
On November 4, US representative Frank Wolf, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that determines US funding, said he would try to block funding to Nepal unless it grants exit visas to Tibetans who seek refuge in the US. ''We're not just going to cut them, we're going to zero them out,'' said Wolf, a Republican from Virginia. ''If they're not willing to do it, then they don't share our values and if they don't share our values, we do not want to share our dollars,'' he told a congressional hearing on Tibet.
Tibetan exiles believe that the current fears among Nepal's Tibetan community and restrictions on them will increase in the lead up to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao scheduled visit to Nepal on December 20. It is expected that Beijing's concern over the entry of Tibetans to Nepal will also be broached during the visit.
Mikel Dunham, an author of books on Tibetans living in Nepal [Buddha’s Warriors, Caught in Nepal: Tibetan Refugees Photographing Tibetan Refugees] believes that Tibetans inside Tibet are aware of the heightened risk factor since 2008. "The Nepali government has never been more hostile to Tibetan refugees than it is today. The impending visit to Kathmandu by China's premier sends another clear message to Tibetans about Nepal's shift to please Beijing. This partly explains the reduced number of Tibetans entering Nepal each year.''
''But the tightening of the Sino-Nepali border brought about by additional security forces and increased cooperation between China and Nepal is the most formidable challenge for would-be Tibetan exiles. Their odds of making it safely to Dharamsala, India - their ultimate destination - are pretty poor these days and many have concluded that this is bad time to attempt escape,'' Mikel Dunham wrote in an e-mail to Asia Times Online.
Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, says the reasons for the drop in refugee arrivals are increased Chinese surveillance along the routes to the border and most importantly the Nepal factor.
Nonetheless, many Tibetans are still eager to flee into exile - some for religious and others for political reasons.
Saransh Sehgal, based in Dharamsala, is a contributor to Asia Times.