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The High Cost of Protracted Refugee Syndrome

posted Sep 15, 2012, 7:50 AM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Sep 18, 2012, 6:39 AM ]

By Maura Moynihan (September 13, 2012)
 In this post, I will examine how Tibetans in exile now suffer from “protracted refugee syndrome” as defined by UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
(Photo: His Holiness the Dalai Lama with Tibetan refugee children in Dharamsala, 1961).

Tibetan exiles have traditionally had strong ties with their host nations, due to the leadership of HH the Dalai Lama, the generous support of the Indian government and of the Nepali Monarchy before the murder of King Birendra in 2001. In the early 1970’s I visited many Tibetan settlements in Himachal Pradesh, and was profoundly moved by the spare and humble offices with life sized paintings of HH the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi joined by a Bodhi tree, symbolizing the teachings of Lord Buddha, which linked India and Tibet for a millennia. I was also sickened by stories of slaughter and flight caused by the Chinese Communist Occupation of Tibet, recounted by every refugee we met. And I had great admiration for how our Indian friends expressed great respect for HH the Dalai Lama, and felt that caring for the Tibetan refugees was a sacred trust.

Tibetans in India are still protected, educated and fed by the Republic of India, and HH the Dalai Lama is one of India’s most revered and engaged honorary citizens. But the old Tibetan settlement system created by Pandit Nehru has not adapted to the seismic demographic and economic changes in the Republic of India since 1959, and is not meeting the needs of the 3rd generation of Tibetans born and raised in exile.

The crisis of statelessness is the root of the obstacles and anxieties overwhelming Tibetans in exile. As China increases military pressure along the China-India border and accelerates conflict in the Himalayan Belt, Tibetan refugees are more vulnerable, less welcome, and politically radioactive. The collapse of the Tibetan exile base in Nepal should be a warning to the Tibetans in India of what could come in the future. Without citizenship, Tibetans have no rights, and without rights, exiles can do little for their brethren in Tibet, or for themselves.


Protracted refugee syndrome

After 53 years of exile, Tibetans in exile suffer from what UNHCR defines as “protracted refugee syndrome.” A report by the Executive Committee of UNHCR states: “The consequences of having so many human beings in a static state include wasted lives, squandered resources … camps save lives in the emergency phase (but) as the years go by, they progressively waste these same lives. A refugee may be able to receive assistance, but is prevented from enjoying those rights that would enable him or her to become a productive member of a society. Protracted refugee situations also waste lives by perpetuating poverty: lack of income and assets; voicelessness and powerlessness in the institutions of state and society; and vulnerability to adverse shocks… The prolongation of refugees’ dependence on external assistance also squanders precious resources of host countries, donors and refugees. Limited funds and waning donor commitment only ensure that such situations are perpetuated, not solved.”

In May 2012, the New Delhi based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses published a detailed report entitled: “Tibet and India’s Security” ( The authors visited many Tibetans settlements in India and conducted extensive interviews with officials of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The report concluded that exiled Tibetans are grateful to India, and are so small in number they pose no security threat towards the host country, which frequently occurs in protracted refugee situations. But the authors also observe that Tibetan exiles “continue to be weighed down by the strain of statelessness, the price of holding on to their Tibetan identity while being unable to return home as free people (but) the CTA prefers exile/ refugee status because not being refugees will be (A) a blow to the freedom struggle (B) Loss of Tibetan culture (C) Loss of refugee status and foreign funding.”


Refugees for whom?

It is time to reconsider whether these are still valid reasons to keep over 100,000 Tibetans exiles in stateless limbo.

Regarding point A: that Tibetans must remain as refugees to sustain their freedom struggle: a great many leaders of the CTA are no longer refugees; they are citizens of Canada, Switzerland, America, and India. Are they less patriotic than a poor sweater seller in Mundgod or Clementown who has only an RC – which stands for “Residency Card”, not “Refugee Card”? Are Tibetan immigrants in the west who lobby and demonstrate also less patriotic or “less Tibetan” than their relatives stranded in Pokhara and Bylakuppe? Certainly stateless Tibetans in India and Nepal are more fragile and less effective, as painfully demonstrated by the police raids on student hostels in Delhi during the September 2012 visit of Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. As citizens of India, Tibetans would have the legal right to protest, and could engage more valued support; India has a greater stake in the status of Tibet and the political and strategic dangers posed by a large Chinese military presence bearing down on South Asia from the Tibetan Plateau than Europe or the USA.

Regarding point B: Tibetan culture, language and religion have been rescued by India, and today Tibetan Buddhism has a global audience. Tibetan cultural studies are well established in many Indian institutions, but without citizenship, Tibetan teachers and students cannot advance professionally, and feel great pressure to go west, which drains the exile base of trained professionals. Tibetan studies departments in western universities rely on the exile network in South Asia for research and language training, so the weakening of the exile base in India will reduce options for field studies, as has already occurred in Nepal. (China allows few academics access to Tibet, and prefers to grant visas to those who tow the party line, that Tibet is part of China, and the occupation has brought benefits, like hospitals, roads, karaoke bars, army bases, etc.) And in the west, immigrants must quickly adapt to an alien culture and have a much harder time preserving their language and customs.

Regarding point C: that Tibetans must remain as refugees to preserve “foreign funding”; numerous research surveys by Indian sociologists confirm that the vast majority of Tibetans in India are poor, and that their economic status has declined in the past 20 years since India liberalized its economy. Foreign donations to Tibetans in South Asia are miniscule compared to aid received by other refugee populations, and many aid projects are short-lived and ineffective. The continued dependence on foreign donors has created what Dhondup Tsering, a community leader in Nepal calls a “pango mentality; we act like beggars, thankful for anything we get, because as refugees, we cannot stand on our own. This hurts young people the most, because they have been educated and they want to work, not beg.”

Mr. Lobsang Sangay has yet to address the issue of stateless. He has repeatedly affirmed that he does not seek independence for Tibet, nor has he made any indication that he is actively pursuing citizenship for his constituents in India, which leaves exiles with stark choices: go back to Tibet and will live under the jackboot of the People’s Republic of China, stay in Nepal or India and remain poor, stateless and endure arrest or harassment for joining public protests of Chinese atrocities in their homeland. Tibetans in India and Nepal always say that they are frustrated and upset because they cannot protest but if they were in the west, they could. Without legal options to immigrate, many take a chance with a visa broker in a back alley of Majnu ka Tila or Thamel and are ensnared by criminal agents who promise a green card, but often deliver debt bondage or jail.

The asylum underground

The proliferation of fake asylum claims from India has not only harmed the reputation of the Tibetan refugees, it has now landed on the desk of HH the Dalai Lama. His Holiness raised the matter most recently in July 2011, during a visit to Ladakh. In this clip at the 1.05.00 mark, His Holiness speaks of the fraudulent visas to Canada and the US and how he had to apologize to the US Embassy in Delhi:

It is appalling that HH the Dalai Lama, world renown scholar, author, and Nobel Laureate, has to do this kind of damage control for the crimes and profits of hustlers who abuse his good name as they attempt to cheat American consular officers and immigration officers. Crooks and thieves freely exploit the anxiety and fragility of exiles, who need the security and protection of citizenship, and thereby weaken what little international support exists for Tibet by sullying the perception, and reality, of the Tibet movement.

Said a retired US diplomat based in Washington; “There is a lot of sympathy for the Tibetan people, but in the past two decades, so many have come to the US on tourist or student visas then immediately claimed asylum, used fake papers, broken the rules in other ways, so it begs the question; why do they feel they need to lie and cheat to get to the US? There appears to be a failure of leadership, and when things get desperate, good people will do bad things.”


Sonam Chodon, the fake nun

The widely publicized case of Sonam Chodon, “The Fake Nun”, damaged the credibility of legitimate asylum seekers to the US. When Ms. Chodon arrived at Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport in 2003, her passport was flagged as having been previously used. She admitted to purchasing a fake passport from a broker in Nepal, and spent 6 months in a Virginia jail, where she launched a dramatic campaign for political asylum with the assist of Tibet support groups and a member of congress, Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia. Ms. Chodon landed on the front page of the Washington Post, claiming to be a Buddhist nun who fled to Nepal to escape torture and impending death by the Chinese military in Tibet. She was initially granted asylum and released from prison, but 2 years later US investigators discovered that her story was hoax, charged her with perjury and labeled her a fugitive from justice.

On March 24, 2005, the Washington Post reported: “Tibetan Nun is a Fake; a federal grand jury last week indicted Chodon, 31, on charges of passport fraud, document fraud and perjury… Federal officials said Chodon, who grew up in a Tibetan village near Mount Everest, concocted the nun tale as part of her highly publicized bid to gain asylum in the United States… In reality, the government says, Chodon is part of a passport fraud ring…Chodon, who was jailed in Virginia for nearly six months starting in 2003, could not be located. Federal officials said she is believed to have been living in New York…Human rights workers and Tibetan activists fear that the charges may cause the United States to overlook the suffering of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing religious persecution in China.”.

The public embarrassment caused by the Sonam Chodon case did not deter visa brokers from coercing their clients into inventing lurid tales of abuse, but it did put US officials on notice. In 2006 a group of Tibetan asylum seekers arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and were immediately detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, handcuffed and taken to an Illinois county jail, where they were held for several months: “Chicago’s New Asylum Seekers” (WBEZ 91.5, April 17, 2007) (

Busted by Facebook

In 2009, a Tibetan man from Darjeeling flew to Australia with an Indian passport, and told customs officials he was from a prominent family of Tibetan activists who fled to Nepal to escape Chinese persecution. The Australian press reported that the man told the Refugee Review Tribunal: “If I return to Nepal … I fear I will be handed over to the Chinese authorities in Tibet. … If this happens the Chinese army will torture me to death.” (


His narrative collapsed when immigration officers checked his Facebook and Hi5 accounts, which were filled with photographs of the asylum-seeker wearing the uniform of his school in West Bengal, playing sports and cavorting with classmates. In rejecting the man’s asylum bid, the Refugee Review Tribunal labeled his story as “far-fetched and patently deceitful.”

The IDSA study also reported on the burgeoning trend of “green card marriage” among Tibetan exiles, stating: “In McLeod Gunj, Tibetans are more interested in marrying foreigners, particularly Western tourists; these marriages generally do not endure. Marriage provides a route to migrate to the Western countries.” There are countless tales of Tibetan men who married western women, abandoning wives and children in India and Nepal, and later abandoning the western wife when the green card arrived.


Refugee stereotypes and narratives

The dependence on a narrative of victimization is another symptom of protracted refugee syndrome; it becomes a means to generate sympathy and exoneration, and to sustain a model that appeals to donor agencies. Perpetuating the outdated settlement model in India, and the prototype of the needy-but-cheerful Tibetan refugee distorts the realities and needs of exiles, and is especially harmful to young people who are culturally integrated with India and Nepal, but feel handicapped and stigmatized by “foreigner” status.

A new report entitled “Tibetan Refugees in India: Declining Sympathies, Diminishing Rights” by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, based in New Delhi states: “The strong cultural heritage of the Tibetan community – their identities, memories and narratives – have come to be informed by an increasingly strong meta-narrative focused on religiosity and suffering. This meta-narrative is built both intentionally and organically by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGIE) and numerous organizations openly funded and supported by foreign associations and agencies. Ironically, as the target of the meta- narrative is to support Tibetans and to conserve their cultural affluence and tradition, it also restrains the independence of personal experience, generating homogenized narratives.

“The TGIE staff expressed satisfaction with the economic situation of the Tibetans. But individual Tibetans revealed a different story. They expressed deep concern over their poor economic condition. They have no regular and fixed income because of the uncertainty and temporary nature of their professions. This was attributed to their refugee status; it was felt that citizenship could improve their economic conditions. (In 1999, the average annual income for a Tibetan refugee in India was $150, as compared to $359 for Indian nationals).

“It appears that in addition to scaling down of assistance to Tibetan refugees, the Government of India has, in recent years, been looking eastward to improve relations with China. The combination of these two factors could spell disaster for Tibetans in India.”.


Borrowed land on borrowed time

An August 2012 ruling by The High Court of Shimla could indeed spell disaster for thousands of Tibetan families hanging on to small shops and momo stalls all over India. The court ordered the eviction of 210 Tibetans living on “encroached land” in Dharamshala along the Bhagsu road to TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Tibetan neighborhoods in India may appear prosperous and secure to tourists and dharma students, but they hang on a slender thread that is fragmenting in an age of scarcity and overpopulation.

The Tibet Justice Center reports: “As “foreigners” Tibetans cannot legally purchase real estate in India without obtaining the approval of the Reserve Bank of India. Because the application for approval is time-intensive and burdensome, in general, only highly placed CTA officials take the time to apply. Most Tibetans cannot afford to purchase real property in any event. Even those who can afford it frequently find it easier to pay an Indian citizen to buy and nominally own the property for them … Tibetans lack any legal redress in the event that the nominal owners choose to assert their legal ownership rights.”

Without legal ownership rights, dharma study centers and monasteries are not protected, as demonstrated by the Karmapa controversy of 2011. An official inquiry into the seizure of the Karmapa’s properties in Himachal Pradesh dismissed all charges of wrongdoing, but the incident ignited wild rumors, accusing the Karmapa and his handlers of money laundering and spying for China.

The tenuous status of the Tibetan exiles does indeed allow Chinese agents to inflict great harm, by spreading rumors, inciting violence, luring young people into drugs and crime, and silencing torture survivors and other new arrivals from Tibet. Many new escapees who have written and testified about the torture and abuse they suffered in Chinese prisons describe receiving death threats on their cell phones from persons who knew exactly where they were walking or standing, in Delhi, Dehradun or Dharamshala. One man reported this to Indian police, who traced the calls to Tibetan settlements all over India and Nepal. This indicates that Chinese agents are operating widely throughout the exile network.


Addiction and despair

An additional feature of prolonged refugee syndrome is hopelessness, despair and a descent into drug abuse and criminality. In recent trips to Dharamshala, I saw many young addicts passed out in gutters or staggering through McLeod Ganj. Tenzin Seshi is producer and director of the film “Miliue Rinpoche; Precious Human Life”, which documents drug abuse among Tibetan exile youth. He found an alarmingly high rate of heroin addiction and heard numerous accounts of Chinese agents, sometimes posing as monks, passing out heroin and needles to Tibetans in Dharamshala. Said Tenzin; “I did this film because I saw a serious problem in our community. I gave many copies to the Health Department in Dharamshala, but they didn’t use it. I asked them why; I felt that they really needed to take the issue seriously. I have seen several of my TCV school friends, and even teachers, die of drug overdoses. And it’s getting worse.”


Angry young men

Another common feature of protracted refugee syndrome is conflict with the host community. Institutionally disadvantaged and isolated by “foreigner” status, young exiles begin to fear and resent the host nationals. Drunken bar fights that turn violent become politically and ethnically charged when one combatant is a refugee.

On April 22, 1994 in Dharamshala, a young Gaddi man was stabbed to death by a Tibetan in a fight over an India–Pakistan cricket match. A furious mob smashed windows and doors at the Tibetan Children’s Village and burned Tibetan shops. HH the Dalai Lama said he would move to Delhi or Bangalore to prevent future conflicts, but local Indian community leaders requested that he remain in Himachal. More violent clashes followed; in July 1999, a Tibetan youth in Manali killed an Indian student, and a mob burned 140 shops in the old Tibetan market. On May 10, 2005, a large rally in Mysore shouted anti-Tibetan slogans, demanding that the Indian government to oust all Tibetans to strengthen ties with China. In 2008, a mob smashed windows of Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe, as the local press reported on-going fights and murders between Tibetans and Indians in Karnataka.


Aid that helps or hurts?

It is painful to see this kind of collateral damage afflicting the 3rd generation in exile. Young Tibetans are coming of age in a globalized world and urgently need new options and solutions. Sandip Roy wrote in April 2012 for New America Media:

“The young Tibetan today is no longer the docile Tibetan from a few decades ago, grateful for the tea and scraps and sympathy it got from New Delhi. The world is still enamored of this romantic image of the noble saffron cloaked monk, perpetually turning the other cheek. But after half a century of exile, there is now another kind of Tibetan – frustrated, angrier and more aggressive … Playing nice, within the rules, goes down well in Beverly Hills but it has yielded neither political gains nor material comfort for a restless young generation growing up in a stateless limbo.”

A new project funded by the USAID, the US Agency for International Development, has pledged $ 2 million to for organic farming and business development in Tibetan settlements in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Maria Otero, US Undersecretary of State stated: “USAID anticipates the program will result in increased economic opportunities which will encourage youth to remain in the settlements, strengthen community ties, and preserve cultural and linguistic traditions.”

Tibetan Career Building Project,

But what is the long-term benefit of $2 million for projects that are designed to keep Tibetans in the old settlements if they cannot adjust their “foreigner” status? It is likely that young professionals trained by USAID will not want to “remain the settlements”; they would rather work in Bangalore or Bombay. Given the legal restrictions imposed by having only an RC, many will try to get a passage to the west. And since Tibetans with RC’s have weak “reason to return”, many will turn to the visa brokers.

As citizens, Tibetans would join a constituency of India’s Buddhists and Himalayan peoples. As refugees, Tibetans are increasingly perceived as an obstacle to relations with a threatening China. The IDSA report states: “Our interviews, focus group discussions (FGD) with almost all representatives – officials, students both secular and monastic, monks, business class, teachers, lay Tibetans, etc. have convinced us that as of now Tibetans would not be a threat to Indian security. They universally reject resorting to violence as a means of struggle. They are deeply grateful and respectful of the Indian government’s magnanimous treatment of them. They would even be happy to serve in the Indian security forces. A couple of them who participated in the 1971 War shared their experiences; some also referred to Operation Blue Star. The informed respondents even talked of strengthening Indian diplomacy in the region to counter Chinese presence in the South Asian countries.”

“Special Meeting” in Dharamshala, September 2012

The CTA administration is convening a special meeting in Dharamshala in late September 2012. It is a timely opportunity to address the issue of statelessness, and to ask the many CTA officials who have Indian or western citizenship how they got it, and how they can help others do the same.

There should also be an open discussion about Indian citizenship. There is a widely held perception that becoming a Canadian or American is fine -as many CTA officials have done, but becoming an Indian devalues the Tibetan identity. In a 2011 interview with the Tibetan Political Review, former Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche admits that the Tibetan Charter permits dual citizenship, so under the Tibetan Charter, a Tibetan can take Indian citizenship and still be “Tibetan”.

That HH the Dalai Lama had to apologize to the US embassy about the crooks and thieves operating freely in the Tibetan community is sorry proof that a criminal underground is inflicting great harm. Ignoring the crisis would be a grave disservice to His Holiness, and to the many individuals who helped him build his exile world, and to the people in Tibet living in bondage to the Chinese Communist Party, who pray for his long life.

Learn more about asylum and immigration

To learn more about asylum and other immigrant visas, visit the Tibet Justice Center website at and the U.S. government’s website at portal/site/uscis.

For information about the US Tibetan Refugee Assistance Act of 2011 (HR. 699), to “provide 3,000 qualified Tibetans with immigrant visas over the course of three years to help Tibetan exiles living in overcrowded conditions in India and Nepal” visit THOMAS (Library of Congress).