Recognizing Tibetan Refugees in Dharamsala, India

India Sep 08 1112
Prayer flags in Dharamsala, India

I’m currently interning at RIJ, but for the past two summers I have been in Dharamsala, India, working with the Tibetan community-in-exile there. My interest stems from my heritage, as I am a quarter Tibetan. I spread the word about the Tibetan situation as much as I can, and I am also eager to learn more about NPO’s and the societal effects that they can have during my time here at RIJ. The following is one aspect of the Tibetan situation, and the difficulties they face as a population that has been in exile for over half a century.

“The idea of working from exile is to be able to return to your country and to live  in freedom.” This was Tenzin Tsundue’s immediate answer when during an interview I asked him how living in India, in exile from Tibet, has affected him. Tsundue is considered one of the most radical Tibetans, climbing hotel buildings to shout protests against Chinese officials and leading marches across India to show the strength of the exiled Tibetans’ desire to return to Tibet. He is one of the many Tibetans who have started gaining international media attention, seeking support for the Tibetan cause after realizing that they cannot simply rely on international support, which is often hard to come by and rarely lasting. These activists have transcended the stereotypical image of a “refugee,” refusing to quietly accept permanent exile.

For almost 60 years now, the situation within Chinese-occupied Tibet has continually worsened, and the exile community has increased accordingly in size. The hundreds of thousands of Tibetans now outside Tibet cannot simply stay in refugee camps, receiving food from humanitarian organizations. They have therefore made Dharamsala, home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, into a Tibetan town, with mostly Tibetan inhabitants as well as Tibetan restaurants and shops. Most of the Dharamsala Tibetans have homes and families; some work and others go to school to receive general education and learn languages such as English and French. Dharamsala has also become a tourist destination, attracting visitors from around the world looking for breathtaking Himalayan views as well as the opportunity to learn about the Tibetan situation, attend a spiritual retreat and, if they’re lucky, meet the Dalai Lama.

Some outsiders have stopped calling the Tibetans in exile refugees because they are so established in India, but this is inaccurate. More than ever, Tibetan activism is increasing because it is fueled by the hope of gaining enough momentum to force China out of Tibet and allow the refugees to return. Since Tibetans cannot become Indian citizens, they are officially recognized as having refugee status, meaning that most of them cannot start their own businesses and are limited to jobs provided by Indians or foreigners. There is no Tibetan passport, and thus the refugees are in perpetual limbo, legally neither Tibetan nor Indian, and at the mercy of the Indian government.

It is not that the Tibetans need pity, or sincere but passive sympathy. They require more international recognition as refugees so that people around the world will realize that the Tibetan cause is as much in need of support now as it has ever been.

By Sophia Slater

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