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
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
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 than 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 in trying to cross the
''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. Nepal too 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
''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
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 the border.
Nepal had allow 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
Mikel Dunham, an author of books on Tibet living in Nepal 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 is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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