News and Views on Tibet

Feature story: Is the migration of exile Tibetans to the west a boon or bane?

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A girl sells local bread in McLeod Ganj in Dharamshala known to be the capital of the exile Tibetan diaspora. Here too, the number of Tibetans have diminished over the years, with most moving to the west (Phayul photo/Tenzin Leckphel)

By Tenzin Nyidon and Tsering Dhundup

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 forced approximately 80,000 Tibetans to seek refuge in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Decades later, a demographic survey conducted by the Tibetan government in exile known officially as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in 2009 reported a Tibetan exile population of 1,28,014; 94,203 in India, 13,514 in Nepal, 1,298 in Bhutan, and 18,999 elsewhere. Over the past decade, this geographic distribution of the Tibetan diaspora has undergone significant changes. In 2020, a study conducted by the 15th Kashag titled “Baseline Study of the Tibetan Diaspora Community Outside South Asia” indicated that approximately half of the Tibetan population now resides outside the traditional exile communities in South East Asia, with 36,098 in North America and 26,379 in Europe, Australasia, and Far East Asia. In the subsequent four years, these numbers are likely to have increased in the population of Tibetans outside South East Asia.

In recent years, a noticeable increase in migration has been observed, especially among youths and middle-aged Tibetans. The primary driver of this trend is financial stability and employment opportunities, compelling many of them to resettle in the West as a significant portion of Tibetan households are engaged in traditional agriculture or seasonal sweater business. With only a small percentage involved in individual businesses or unregistered units, many Tibetan youths migrate in search of better employment opportunities.

The incumbent President Penpa Tsering, during his 2023 speech in Minnesota, openly acknowledged the diminishing presence of youths in Tibetan settlements in India. He stated, “It is the fault of the Tibetan government in exile that we cannot provide the youth jobs that fit their education qualifications in the settlements,” attributing the migration to the inability to offer suitable employment. Consequently, the diminishing youth population in settlements has set off a chain reaction, resulting in a decrease in the number of children.”

It is worth noting that the CTA has played a pivotal role in facilitating the migration of Tibetans to Western countries. While assigning blame can be complex and multifaceted, many argue that the CTA bears partial responsibility for the challenges faced due to the decline in the Tibetan population in the Indian subcontinent.

State-sponsored schemes

The decades in exile saw a significant challenge in terms of livelihood and rehabilitation for the Tibetans with chunk of the community still receiving fresh batches of Tibetans refugees. Between 1989 to until early 2000s, Tibetan refugees under a relatively relaxed border continued to flock into India with an average of 3000-4000 Tibetans every year.

This influx bolstered the number of Tibetans in the refugee settlements, schools as well as monastic institutions, that fostered the preservation of Tibet’s unique culture and religion.

While this increased the number of the diaspora community, challenges emerged as to the standard of living, livelihood challenges and the overall economic condition of the Tibetans in exile. With those conditions in play, the exile Tibetan government sought every help including foreign aid to make the lives of Tibetans better. Beginning in the early 1960’s the exile government sent batches of Tibetans to the west under humanitarian schemes sponsored by foreign countries.

The history of migration from India to the West began in the early 1960s after Tibetans resettled in South Asian countries. In 1963 the Swiss government welcomed 1,000 Tibetan refugees, marking the country’s first non-European refugees. Today, more than 8,000 Tibetans are living in Switzerland. In 1971, the Tibetan Refugee Program led to the resettlement of 228 in Canada. In 1972, nearly a thousand Tibetans settled in Dee Why, Sydney, Australia, especially former Tibetan political prisoners and their families. This trend continues today, with several Tibetan political prisoners and their families resettling in Australia. In 1990, 1,000 Tibetan refugees from India immigrated to the U.S. under the resettlement program. The latest mass migration was in 2013, resettling 1,000 Tibetan refugees to Canada. According to the findings of Francoise Robin, a Tibet specialist at France’s National Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilisation, approximately 8,000 Tibetans currently reside in the country.

The Tibetan Demographic Survey of 2009 estimated that over 9,309 individuals moved to the West during the period 1998-2009. By 2024, nearly half of the Tibetans in exile reside in foreign countries, highlighting the continuous flow of Tibetans seeking refuge and opportunities abroad. The number of exile Tibetans who have migrated to the west through these schemes have doubled or more as immediate families and relatives of these state sponsored schemes have also moved to the west through family reunion visas as well as spouse visas.

Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy 2014

The Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy (TRP) 2014,  formalised by the Government of India on October 20, 2014, in consultation with the Tibetan government in exile, to address issues related to the land occupied by Tibetans in various settlements across India, due to the absence of proper land lease document. The policy states that state governments should sign a lease document for the land occupied by Tibetan refugees. This lease is to be granted for a period of 20 years, or until it is revoked or cancelled. This provision offers a level of security and tenure to Tibetan refugees who may have been occupying land without formal documentation. Other key aspects of the TRP 2014 are the extension of various state and central government schemes and provisions, as well as improvements in infrastructure facilities within Tibetan settlements.

One of the policy’s emphasis was on the formalisation of land lease agreements, granting land use rights to Tibetans, and extending central and state benefits for various development schemes. A research paper authored by Tenzin Choedon titled ‘Rehabilitation or a Temporal Adjustment: An Assessment of the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, 2014’ however, argues that the policy’s primary concentration on resolving land-related issues resulted in relatively less attention being given to the implementation of other developmental schemes.

Contrary to the expectations of the CTA, only five states in India, namely Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim, have adopted the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy (TRP) 2014. Speaking to Phayul, Choedon said, “The limited adoption of the TRP 2014 in only five states in India can be attributed to various factors, and resistance may indeed exist in states that did not adopt it. There isn’t a singular factor that could explain the reluctance of some states to adopt the policy; each state has its unique political, economic, and social dynamics that must be considered. For instance, examining the relationship between local residents and Tibetans in a specific state is crucial. The dynamics of the relationship between Dharamshala locals and Tibetans may differ significantly from that between Tibetans and local residents in Uttarakhand.”

The provisions outlined in the policy have faced criticism for their perceived lack of clear deliverables, both in written documentation and practical implementation. Notably, the policy fails to address the challenges faced by Tibetans regarding property ownership or leasing in their names. Additionally, it does not provide any guidance or mention government job opportunities for the Tibetan community. Perhaps most crucially, the policy does not offer clarity on the legal status of Tibetans under the Indian constitution, leaving their legal standing uncertain. This lack of clarity on the legal status of Tibetan refugees, persisting for more than sixty years in exile, coupled with the challenges faced by Tibetans in their daily lives that are significantly influenced by their legal identity, stands out as a major factor contributing to the mass migration of Tibetans to the West. The uncertainty surrounding their legal standing has likely played a pivotal role in shaping the decisions of many Tibetan refugees to seek better opportunities and stability in Western countries.

The implementation of the TRP 2014 has given rise to questions, whether it genuinely serves as a ‘rehabilitation policy’ for Tibetans in India or is it intended more as a preventive measure, considering its consultation with the CTA, particularly in issues like the migration of Tibetans to the West. “The adoption of the policy is the result of a mutual agreement between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), aimed at resolving the persistent land disputes among Tibetan settlements with various institutional bodies and their local residents. Furthermore, the policy aims to consolidate Tibetans in these settlements by providing them access to various schemes while securing the “temporariness”  of the exile community. In the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the population migrating abroad or to urban areas, coupled with a decline in childbirth. This demographic shift raises concerns within the CTA regarding its primary goal of protecting Tibetans and preserving their culture in exile. Therefore, the TRP is framed not only as a means of rehabilitation but also as a preventive measure to address the challenges posed by the migration of Tibetans, particularly to the West,” Choedon opined.

Impact on the institutions

The migration trend of Tibetans from South Asian countries to others has presented multifaceted challenges for the Tibetan government in exile, impacting the sustenance of educational institutions, Tibetan settlements, and overall sustenance of the government itself.

The migration of Tibetans has had a substantial impact on Tibetan schools in exile, as highlighted by Sikyong in his May speech in Shimla. The data from the Department of Education indicated a significant decline in the number of Tibetan students over the years. In 2012, there were reportedly over 20,000 Tibetan students, but by 2022, this number had diminished to 9,700.

The Sikyong identified several factors contributing to this decline. Firstly, there has been a decrease in the arrival of Tibetan children from inside Tibet. Secondly, the migration of Tibetan youths to Western countries emerged as a significant factor impacting the student population. Finally, a low birth rate within the Tibetan community was identified as the third reason for the diminishing student numbers.

President Penpa Tsering, in his address at the 16th Annual School Heads’ Meeting of Sambhota Tibetan Schools Society (STSS) in Dharamshala in January 2024, disclosed the number of monasteries under CTA to be 292 monasteries. The total monastic population residing in these monastic institutions stands at approximately 39,000. Notably, only 29% of these monks are of Tibetan descent. The majority, comprising 69.5% hail from the Himalayan region, while the remaining 1.5% are from Mongolia and various other countries. The number of Tibetans enrolling in monasteries have reduced multifold over the years.

While the decline in schools and monasteries cannot be attributed only to migration to the west, it is arguably a major factor.

Geshe Lhakdor, the Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), in his speech at Manjushri, a Dharamshala-based organisation in January 2024, highlighted the growing trend of migration of Tibetan youth to the West, pointing out how it poses a threat to the preservation of the Tibetan language and culture. Additionally, he noted that Tibetan children in the West have fewer resources available to them for learning the Tibetan language and culture. This, he said, could potentially impact the continuity and depth of Tibetan cultural and linguistic traditions among the younger generation in the diaspora.

In India, compact communities have appeared to be a medium to reinvigorate Tibetan identity, primarily through schools, monastic institutions, and cultural centers. Recognizing this significance, a major initiative has been undertaken by the 16th Kashag (Cabinet) known as the ‘Building Back Compact Communities’ (BBCC) program. The BBCC program reflects a commitment to address the challenges posed by the dispersal of Tibetan communities. The initiative is likely to focus on rebuilding, strengthening, and revitalising the core elements that contribute to the cohesiveness of compact communities, including efforts to enhance educational institutions, preserve cultural heritage, and sustain monastic traditions.

A new frontiers

The mass migration of Tibetans from India to foreign countries has catalyzed the emergence of a global Tibetan diaspora, scattered across different nations. This dispersion has given rise to a network of impassioned individuals committed to advocating for the rights and freedom of Tibetans. These diaspora communities have evolved into focal points for organizing advocacy efforts and elevating awareness about the Tibetan cause. The migration has additionally empowered Tibetans to participate in political activism and lobbying endeavors in foreign nations, enabling them to influence policies both locally and nationally in support of their cause. This active involvement in politics further contributes to garnering political backing for the Tibetan cause on the international stage.

Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan-Canadian human rights activist and Campaigns Director at Students for Free Tibet, told Phayul, “Migration of Tibetans to foreign countries provides a unique opportunity for the next generation of Tibetan advocacy as more Tibetans will bear hyphenated identities in the ever-changing political world. The advocacy work done in respective nations as a Tibetan vs. a Tibetan citizen of the respective country is drastically different with various access to spaces such as a meeting with your member of parliament (MP) as a constituent vs a meeting request for a conflict on the other side of the world”.

In the global context, Lhamo sees the potential for Tibetans equipped with knowledge of their host nations and accepted degrees to bring Tibet to the international stage through diverse avenues. However, she underscores the need for balancing this promising network and opportunity with the preservation of the Tibetan identity, maintaining relationships with the current host nation, India, and ensuring the continued engagement of youth in the Tibetan freedom movement.

When asked about changes in the dynamics of Tibetan advocacy due to resettlement in various foreign countries, Lhamo cites a tangible example. “During the last China’s UPR, 9 states mentioned Tibet and this year last week in Geneva, 21 states mentioned Tibet and made 24 recommendations. This is one example that is a direct result of Tibetans resettling in various foreign countries and lobbying their respective governments, taking up space in the international world and representing Tibet”. Lhamo also envisions a turning point, where Tibetan activists are not solely advocates for Tibet but are increasingly recognized as leaders in broader global movements, including the environmental movement and the fight for democracy against authoritarianism. Lobby days and acivism by Tibetan youth, including those born in the west have significantly increased the vigor and bite of both activism and advocacy abroad, the exploits of which the CTA relies and bets on.

Delving into a more practical level, financial and living standards of Tibetans in the West and their families in the Indian subcontinent, have improved over the years due to migration. Thousands of Tibetans have migrated from South East Asia to other countries in search of employment and financial stability. Tamding Dolma, a naturalized French citizen who migrated to France from India a decade ago, shared that her decision to move was primarily driven by her family’s financial difficulties and lack of employment opportunities in India. When questioned about the financial support she provides to her family in India, she explained that her migration to France was instrumental in alleviating the financial constraints her family faced. Subsequently, both her brother and sister also migrated to France.

Tamding told Phayul that over the past decade she and her siblings have been successful in stabilizing the financial condition of their family in India. Despite inherent challenges of moving to and adjusting in a foreign country, she believes that the decision to migrate has proven to be financially beneficial not only for them but also for others in similar situations.

Migration has contributed to the dissemination of Tibetan culture and religion globally. Tibetan Buddhism, once confined to the Himalayas, has now spread worldwide, with Tibetan Buddhist monks and prayer flags becoming common sights. Emily Yeh’s research on the ‘Tibetan Diaspora in the US’ suggests that the emigration of Tibetans in recent decades has played a crucial role in popularizing Tibetan Buddhism globally.

Legitimacy of the CTA

The migration of Tibetans to the West perhaps most significantly poses threats to the legitimacy of the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamshala. The diminishing population of the Tibetan community in India has the potential to reshape the demographic makeup of compact Tibetan communities, specifically influencing the leadership and administrative capacities of the CTA.

The subject of migration was touted to be a challenge by majority of the Sikyong candidates during the campaign of the last general election of CTA in 2021. Key presidential candidates including the incumbent Sikyong Penpa Tsering highlighted the issue of migration on their campaign trail.

With the demographic distribution of exile Tibetans nearing half in the Indian subcontinent and the other half in the west, the question of CTA’s legitimacy, at least in the few decades, many say, will come into question. The CTA has significant jurisdiction and clout in CTA administered settlements and schools in India only and not in the west. While the Tibetans in the west have a deep affinity with the CTA and its leadership, the absence of physical spaces and improper administration channels in the west has undermined the CTA’s reach in the west.

The CTA faces challenges in administering scattered Tibetan communities in countries in the West, as it lacks jurisdiction similar to its role in India. This circumstance raises administrative issues, as highlighted by challenges encountered during the latest demographic survey conducted in 2022 by the present administration under the leadership of President Penpa Tsering. The survey was deemed “inconclusive” and “unsuccessful.” “We have received around 66,000 forms from the India-Nepal- Bhutan population census. However, we are yet to receive numbers from some schools and also yet to consider the number of men enrolled in the army,” the Additional Secretary from the Department of Home, Dawa Tsultrim told Phayul earlier. Notably, the survey identified a gap of 4,000 forms during online filing. A spokesperson acknowledged this discrepancy, stating, “We are currently looking to solve this discrepancy in the number of forms we have received. But perhaps Tibetans from the West could have submitted forms through their respective settlements but since their Green Book is listed abroad, it could have complicated their entries.”

The development is a stark reminder that CTA’s jurisdiction and clout faces a number of problems particularly when the target demographic is spread sparsely in western countries.

The bigger challenge, however, is the decreasing number of Tibetans in CTA administered refugee settlements, schools and monasteries in India where, observers feel that in the next one or two decades, the problem could exponentially become evident with CTA’s legitimacy coming into question with the number of Tibetans.

In an interview with Phayul, Sikyong Penpa Tsering acknowledged the rapid increase in Tibetan migration, expressing an understanding that this trend is likely to continue over time. He elaborated on his recent official visit to France and other countries, highlighting his engagement with Tibetans in these regions. Sikyong Penpa Tsering emphasised his commitment, as outlined in his campaign manifesto, to bridge the emotional gap arising from the physical distance among Tibetan communities.

Addressing this concern, Sikyong Penpa Tsering told Phayul that adapting to new realities is crucial to maintaining legitimacy. “The idea is that if Tibetans in the West can sustain themselves, it might be beneficial to allow them to grow independently, especially when continuous financial support might become unsustainable over time. The sustainability of various initiatives, such as weekend Tibetan classes is an effort made by Tibetan associations and individuals in the West. They are managing well with support from the Department of Education, textbooks, and their own endeavours. This emphasis is on fostering a mindset that allows these initiatives to grow organically, minimising reliance on external assistance,” he said.

“The evolving demographic and social changes within the Tibetan diaspora highlights the importance of legislators and leadership actively listening to the voices of the people, considering the significant demographic shifts and social transformations. There is a growing need to adapt representation structures to align with the aspirations and needs of the community,” he told Phayul.

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