E.g., 12/10/2023
E.g., 12/10/2023
Global Nomads: The Emergence of the Tibetan Diaspora (Part I)

Global Nomads: The Emergence of the Tibetan Diaspora (Part I)

Once imbued in an aura of adventure, remoteness, and exoticism, the region of the high Himalayan and Central Asian plateau is a global hot spot for ethnic, national, and territorial conflicts.

At the heart of the region is Tibet, whose struggles reflect those of the region at large. The Tibetan capital city of Lhasa was ground zero for the March 2008 protests, which soon spread to Tibetan regions in other provinces.

Approximately 122,078 Tibetans, including those born in Tibet and those of Tibetan ancestry, live in exile in Asia and Oceania, Europe, and North America, according to a census conducted in 1998 by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India (The CTA website now puts the figure at 111,170).

Meanwhile, China is home to about 5.4 million Tibetans, according to the 2000 Chinese census, with less than half of them in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and most others in communities now absorbed within western provinces of China.

Tibetans in both indigenous and diaspora contexts participate in high levels of internal migration and out-migration that pose unique challenges and opportunities to their continued existence as a distinctive culture and people.

Since 1959, when Tibet's leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India, Tibetans in exile have managed to keep their culture and language alive. They have successfully reconstituted their institutions in exile, dispersing into cohesive and fluid transnational networks to form a key emerging diaspora.

Part I explores Tibet's history, its relationship with China, the creation of the government in exile, the movement to India and Indian policy toward Tibetan refugees, the settlements in South Asia, and the dispersion of Tibetans to the West.

Part II, which will be published on October 1, looks at how Tibetans have integrated into Asian and Western societies, the diaspora's political success, the divide between those in Tibet and Tibetans abroad, and what lies ahead for the Tibetan diaspora.

Historical Background

Territories designated as Tibet or Tibetan historically were defined by the high-altitude ecosystem and the inhabitants who were ethnic Tibetans. In marked contrast, the Han Chinese and Indians/Nepalis were agrarian peoples living in the fertile lower-altitude plains that stretched out from the base of the Tibetan highlands and Himalayan foothills.

Along Tibet's permeable eastern border with China, Tibetans led seminomadic lifestyles in the lush steppe regions ascending to the plateau. The Great Wall of China was constructed between the 6th and 16th centuries to keep marauding Tibetan, Mongolian, and Uygur nomads out of China along Tibet's northeastern borders.

In Tibet's central, southwestern, and western border regions with Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, and India, Tibetans led agrarian and nomadic lifestyles on the arid and ecologically sparse high-altitude plateau.

Tibet gained prominence in the 7th century when King Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd King, consolidated the Tibetan plateau and surrounding areas of China and India under the Tibetan Empire. In this period, the king helped to introduce Buddhism as Tibetans expanded their territory through conquest.

Both the Tibetan Empire and the Tang Dynasty in China succumbed to Gengis Khan's invasion in the early 13th century. Following the invasion, Mongol leader Godan Khan and the Tibetan lama Sakya Pandita established a relationship likened to the reciprocal relations between a patron and a priest, respectively. This relationship formally persisted through respective successors from the Sakyas through the Dalai Lamas in the early 20th century.

This patron-priest-type relationship confused Britain and Russia, the dominant colonial powers in the region during the 19th century. As a result, these powers signed a series of very ambiguous treaties with Tibet in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The wording of these treaties ranged from establishing China's sovereignty over Tibet; to recognizing Chinese "suzerainty" or control of Tibet alongside limited Tibetan self-rule; to establishing complete Tibetan independence.

Meanwhile, Tibet continued to exploit the rivalry between Britain and Russia over Inner Asia as it struggled to avoid colonization. Tibet occasionally used its relationship with China to divert hostile colonial incursions, which led China to assert its position in Tibet by appointing a special representative in Lhasa, the Amban.

Such policies, along with its geographic isolation, allowed Tibetan institutions to develop a culture consistent with Buddhist values. Buddhist monasticism, which began shortly after the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century, offered a sophisticated education to monks and, to a far lesser degree, nuns. Together, monks and nuns made up more than 10 percent of the Tibetan population in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Buddhism and monastic education helped to establish internal migration patterns in Tibet that continue today in both internal and out-migration flows. Tibet had a pervasive and well-established tradition of extended pilgrimages that could involve walking thousands of miles, from far-eastern Tibet to Lhasa's Jokhang Temple or Mount Kailash. Many aspiring monks traveled to and from distant home communities to attend one of the three large monastic universities in the region of Lhasa, for example.

Economic and nonreligious-education factors also contributed to high rates of migration. Beyond the nomadic traditions in some regions, Tibetans from more settled agrarian communities in central Tibet were often employed in trade with Nepal and India that took them away from family farms or residences for long durations.

There were only a few secular schools in Tibet prior to 1959, which tended to focus on teaching the Tibetan language and mathematics. Some wealthy parents hired monks as tutors, and others sent their children to a Jesuit boarding school in Darjeeling, India.

With the demise of the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century, Tibet distanced itself from China altogether. The 13th Dalai Lama unilaterally declared independence in 1913. This was followed by the Simla conference in 1914 involving representatives of China, Britain, and Tibet.

The Simla agreement dealt with border issues between Tibet, Britain, and China (the McMahon line) and the highly controversial question of the status of Tibet in relation to China. Though all parties signed it at the time, China did not ratify it. Thus, the agreement's validity is questionable for the Chinese but not for the Tibetans or the British. The Tibetans also use the agreement as further proof of their independence insofar as they were an equal party to an international agreement.

Tibet and China

The communist Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet in 1950-1951 led to the drafting of the Seventeen-Point Agreement (1951), establishing Tibet's autonomous status within the People's Republic of China (PRC). Tibetans contest this agreement's validity, saying it was signed under duress and that the delegation sent to Beijing did not have the power to sign such an agreement.

The 14th Dalai Lama was hastily enthroned in 1950 at the age of 15, after which he made several attempts to accommodate Chinese rule in Tibet, going so far as to meet with Mao Zedong in Beijing in the mid-1950s. When the Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations in 1950 and 1959, no major powers stepped up to support the Tibetan case. This pattern carried on after exile.

Traditionally, Tibet included three traditional provinces or regions: Amdo in the northeast, Kham in the southeast, and U-Tsang in the west. After 1959, China demarcated only U-Tsang as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the region designated as Tibet on contemporary maps (see map below).

Thereafter, TAR was and remains squarely under the dominance of Beijing, with limited Tibetan representation or autonomy. The loss of autonomy and self-governance was even more dramatic in the eastern provinces of Amdo and Kham, where most Tibetans are born and raised.

The regions of Amdo and Kham were absorbed within the expanded borders of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and, to a lesser extent, Yunnan provinces, outside the borders of TAR. In some of the more remote and rural areas of these provinces, seminomadic Tibetans lived in protected areas comparable to North American Indian reservations.

The ethnic Han majority, who make up 91 percent of China's population, and other non-Tibetan minorities tend to dominate these provinces; however, many small, remote villages have retained some degree of local autonomy by virtue of their isolation and the lack of Han settlers.

Meanwhile, Han, Islamic Hui, and other non-Tibetan minorities are moving to TAR for a variety of reasons. These include population pressures in other regions, increased access to new transportation and resource technologies, and government financial incentives for resettling in TAR and Tibetan regions of the western provinces. Some are enticed by the ample resources, from rare plants and animals used in Chinese medicine to the forests of Tibetan regions of Sichuan.

The relative population of Tibetans to non-Tibetans in TAR is decreasing even though the net population of ethnic Tibetans is growing. In the 2000 Chinese census, the population of Tibetans in China was reported to be 5,416,021, a 26 percent increase over the 4,289,000 Tibetans counted in the 1990 Chinese census.

These Tibetan population increases can be explained by rising fertility rates and decreasing mortality rates, which together compensate for population loss from continuing emigration.

That said, the proportion of Tibetans to non-Tibetans in TAR is falling. Even by China's own estimates, in 2000, the 2,411,100 Tibetans in TAR made up 92 percent of TAR's total population of 2,620,761. This was down 3.5 percentage points from 1990, when the 2,096,700 Tibetans in TAR made up 95.5 percent of the region's total population of 2,195,497.

In other words, overall growth in TAR's population (19.4 percent) outpaced the growth of TAR's Tibetan population (15 percent) in the same 10-year period.

In 2002, the vice president of the Commission for Planning and Development in TAR stated that, of the 200,000 residents of Lhasa, only half were Tibetans; the remainder came from 31 other nonindigenous ethnic-minority groups. In other Tibetan cities, Tibetans make up less than 10 percent of the population.

This population trend is expected to continue, especially now that the Qinghai-Tibet railway has opened. From July 2006 to July 2007, its first year of operation, the railway transported 1.5 million passengers.

Although the Chinese government considers these resettlement policies and transportation links an economic development strategy, many Tibetan and foreign critics view much of the ensuing economic benefits as disproportionately benefiting resettled Han and Hui businesses and residents.

The Beginning of the Tibetan Diaspora

In 1956, the 14th Dalai Lama attended the 2,500-year birth anniversary of the Buddha in Bodh Gaya, India. During this trip, the Dalai Lama requested sanctuary from then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru refused and encouraged him instead to return to Lhasa to negotiate with the Chinese.

Efforts to accommodate Chinese rule ended in 1959. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, where Nehru granted sanctuary to him and over 80,000 Tibetans, the largest movement out of Tibet to date.

This first wave of refugees came from all regions of Tibet and all social backgrounds, including monks and nuns, whole families, and children orphaned by the conflicts with the Chinese. Although there were a disproportionate number of men because the monks and soldiers were at higher risk of persecution at that time, many women came with families or as nuns.

From Refugees to Organized Diaspora

Just before crossing the border of Tibet and India in 1959, in a place called Yatung, the 14th Dalai Lama announced the formation of an exile government. For Tibetans in exile, this constituted a relocation of the existing government and officials, most of whom accompanied the Dalai Lama into exile.

In English, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile refers to itself as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), an administrative body that remains unrecognized as a government by any state, including India.

As an association, however, CTA has been able to secure financial, in-kind, human rights, and moral support from states, charitable organizations, and individuals around the world. CTA is located in Dharamsala, northern India, generally considered the heart of the Tibetan diaspora and the official seat of the Dalai Lama in exile.

Although the government-in-exile relies on democratic principles, the Dalai Lama instituted these reforms from above rather than as a right claimed by the masses, which some view as a weak indication of democratization.

However, most scholars and observers would agree that the past 50 years have witnessed a gradual democratization of Tibetan society with respect to gender equity, social mobility, free elections, the separation of secular and religious authorities, and the tolerance of dissent.

Some of these transformations are evident in the very public and vocal difference between, for example, the Tibetan Youth Congress, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that supports full independence, and the Dalai Lama, who now supports Tibetan autonomy over full independence.

That said, the Dalai Lama has been an important agent of democratization and social change among Tibetans in exile. In his autobiography, My land and My People, he recalls how he tried to institute reforms in Tibet, appointing a reforms committee of leading citizens to redress the inequalities in Tibet. The Chinese occupation interrupted the reform process.

With democratic intentions in mind, the Dalai Lama drafted the 1963 constitution, which was replaced in 1991 by the Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile. Both documents address short-term and long-term objectives that include providing a temporary solution for governing Tibetans as a diaspora in exile, and organizing the political life of Tibetans in anticipation of returning to Tibet under autonomous Tibetan leadership.

Seven kalons, or ministers, make up the Kashag, CTA's executive branch. The kalon tripa, or prime minister, was first nominated by the 14th Dalai Lama but has been directly elected by the Tibetan people since 2001. A monk, the Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche, has held the post since then.

Samdhong Rinpoche was an educator and former Principal and Director of the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in Varanasi-Benaris, the first successful higher educational institution to combine Tibetan, Sanskrit, and modern languages, cultures, and education systems. He was also a key author of the new education policy, which reasserts a primary role for Tibetan language and cultural practices and contents in Tibetan secular education in exile.

In addition to education, CTA oversees departments of finance, health, home, information and international relations, religion and culture, and security.

Although these departments technically oversee all Tibetan refugees and refugee communities in exile, in reality they tend to exert more influence over the settlements in South Asia. The departments are staffed by skilled laypeople and monastics (monks), and appointments and promotion are based, at least in theory, on merit.

Representation in the elected parliament, the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies (ATPD) is based on geographical and religious representation. The ATPD has 46 members: 10 from each of U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo, the three traditional provinces of Tibet, with two positions reserved for women in each province.

The four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Kargyu, Nyingma, and Sakya) and the indigenous Bon faith elect two members each. Tibetans in the West elect three members: two from Europe and one from North America. In addition, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has the discretion to nominate one to three members.

In elections, monks and nuns have two votes: one to elect a representative from their region of origin in Tibet, like all other Tibetans have, and one to elect a representative of their particular religious sect.

All Tibetans in exile who meet the voting criteria have the right to vote in elections, which are overseen by the Election Commission of CTA. The Election Commission is an independent body that operates on a set of rules and regulations developed by Parliament. Within the Election Commission, there are 65 Local Election Commissions in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Europe, North America, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia.

The Election Commissions oversee the election of everyone from the Prime Minister and Parliament to local assemblies, settlement heads and assistants, and the president and certain executive positions within regional Tibetan freedom movements.

There are no political parties with the possible exception of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, which is considered to be an NGO though it functions as a political party. Constituencies nominate candidates, and the candidates receiving a certain proportion of votes are eligible to run for a Parliament seat. These elections include the whole diaspora, with 130 settlements and communities located in different parts of India, Nepal, and Bhutan, plus various settlements or communities in the West.

CTA has focused on reestablishing and/or developing key cultural, religious, and educational Tibetan institutions in exile. Some of these institutions include the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), founded in 1960; the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), founded in 1971; and the three main reconstituted Gelug monastic universities, Sera, Ganden, and Drepung monasteries, as well as many others of all four religious and monastic sects.

Likewise, Tibetans have established 85 secular Tibetan schools in South Asia administered under four distinctive programs or bodies with varying degrees of public and private funding and administrative and funding autonomy.

Tibetans in India

India is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the primary instrument establishing international norms for the treatment of refugees. As a result, India's refugee policies and practices remain outside of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

That said, Tibetans are one of the only official refugee groups the Indian government has recognized and legally permitted to reside in India.

Also, Tibetan refugees have enjoyed preferential treatment from the Indian government not accorded other refugees in India. For example, India offers Tibetans relative autonomy over public education with some public supports. Tibetans and their leaders continue to voice gratitude for Indian hospitality.

The Tibetan refugee population in India has ranged from 80,000 in the 1970s to as high as 118,000 in the mid-1990s and back down to an estimated 85,000 according to the 1998 CTA census of Tibetan in exile. Today, most Tibetans in exile continue to live in Tibetan refugee communities in India.

Tibetan migration to India transpired in three waves. The first wave occurred between 1959 and the 1970s, when over 80,000 Tibetans followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile.

The Tibetan refugees who came to India or were born in India before 1979 received Indian residence permits, which must be renewed yearly. Residence permits are required to obtain work, rent an apartment, open a bank account, and obtain identity certificates, which are necessary for international travel.

Although Tibetans were designated as foreigners and barred from owning land, the Indian government donated land for settlements and invited others to live in more remote Himalayan regions and former British Himalayan hill stations like Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama ultimately settled in the mid-1960s.

During this first wave of Tibetan refugees, the Indian government offered Tibetans public works jobs for subsistence pay. These jobs included building roads in the high Himalayan regions, as well as positions in special military and paratrooper units of the Indian Army protecting the high-altitude Himalayan borders of India and China. Otherwise, Tibetans are excluded from holding public office and owning property.

The second wave began in the 1980s and increased steadily up to the mid-1990s. Between 1986 and 1996, the Indian government admitted 25,000 Tibetans. Their departure from Tibet corresponded with a period of increased liberalizations in China, which allowed more monastics to join orders and permitted increased migration. About 44 percent of the people in this second wave of refugees were monks and nuns.

Furthermore, there was a dramatic increase in short-term visitors from Tibet. For example, up to 100,000 Tibetans from Tibet attended the Kalachakra ceremony in Sarnath in 1990. Most of these visitors journeyed in part on foot.

India has been far less welcoming of this second wave and more recent refugees. According to UNHCR, although the Indian government tolerates these "new arrivals," like earlier arrivals they are barred from engaging in any political activities. However, many of these newer refugees were denied residence permits, and because existing Tibetan settlements were not allowed to expand, they started becoming overcrowded.

The third and current wave, if indeed a distinct "wave" at all, is characterized by a decline in the number of visitors and exiles, with a disproportionate number of monks and nuns. In 1998, for example, 2,200 Tibetans arrived in India, most of whom were monks or nuns seeking religious sanctuary and education.

The hospitality India has shown Tibetan refugees has historical, ideological, and strategic components. Tibetan Buddhist monasticism traces its roots to the high period of Indian Buddhist monasticism between 300 and 1100 CE. In addition, most of the revered early founding teachers of Tibetan Buddhism were Indian.

Accordingly, India holds an almost mythological role as a spiritual mother or father in the Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist imagination. This sense of shared spiritual roots is reinforced by the strong symbolic role Mahatma Gandhi continues to play in the Tibetan nonviolent liberation movement.

It is fair to suggest that this sense of spiritual proximity has influenced Indian hospitality; however, there is no question that Tibet's strategic geographic position has been a key practical consideration underlying India's initial preferential treatment of Tibetan refugees.

Because the entire Himalayan regions of territorial India have tended to be Tibetan, of Tibetan origin, and/or closely related culturally, religiously, linguistically, and economically to Tibet, India has gained immensely from its generosity to Tibetans. Today, former Tibetan Buddhist kingdoms like Ladakh and Sikhim are under Indian control, as are many territories secured following the India-China war of 1962.

But as India and China continue to foster improved diplomatic and trade relations with one another, the impact on Tibetans, their security, human rights, and place in India remain uncertain.

South Asian Tibetan Settlements

CTA has established 52 Tibetan refugee settlements in India (35), Nepal (10), and Bhutan (7). Each settlement has distinctive economic activities, local governance, schools, and housing and amenities under the admnistration of CTA. Individual Tibetan families and communities also live in other ethnically mixed South Asian cities and towns. CTA does not administer these settlements or enclaves directly, but it continues to oversee aspects of their education, health, and elections.

The 52 CTA-administered settlements tend to be populated by Tibetans sharing certain religious, familial, and/or regional backgrounds. Often, a monastery will be built near or around the settlement, and followers of that particular lama or sect will settle there. Likewise, families tend to expand progressively to include more extended family branches within the settlements as people migrate from Tibet or other regions in exile.

Not surprisingly, according to the CTA's 1998 census, the largest population of Tibetans lived in India. As mentioned earlier, alternative figures have placed the population of Tibetans in India as high as 110,000 (Indian government estimate). The official 1998 CTA census figure of 85,149 was based on household questionnaires. This figure was only slightly lower for the individual questionnaire results.

The 1998 CTA household-questionnaire figure for Nepal was 13,720. The country is now home to about 20,000 Tibetans (see Table 1).

Table 1. Tibetans by Country of Residence
Country of residence Population Source
India 110,000 2007, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Nepal 20,184 2006, UNHCR Statistical Yearbook
United States 9,000 2008, Office of Tibet, New York, personal communication
Canada 4,275 2006, Canadian census data based on response to the ethnic origin question
Bhutan 1,600 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
Switzerland 1,540 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
Taiwan 1,000 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
United Kingdom 650 2008, Office of Tibet, London, personal communication
Australia 533 2006, Australian census data based on ancestry question
Rest of Europe excluding Switzerland and Scandanavia 640 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
Scandanavia 110 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
New Zealand 66 2006, New Zealand census data based on response on ancestry question
Japan 60 1998, Survey by the Tibetan Government in Exile
Note 1: The numbers are collected from the most recent sources because the only consistent count of Tibetan Diaspora is from the survey conducted by the Tibetan government in exile in 1998, which is quite old. Thus, where more recent data is available from other sources, those numbers were used.
Note 2: Usually, one can look at the diaspora number by looking at the country of birth,refugees or the ethnic origin/ancestry question in the respective countries' census. However it is hard to obtain such numbers for Tibetans since the country of birth or country of origin for refugees for Tibetans would be either listed as China, India, Nepal, or another country. For the ethnic orgin or ancestry question, the number of Tibetans in proportion to the respective country is too small to be counted separately and are usually included among "others." In terms of refugees numbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) only looks after Tibetan refugees in Nepal. Thus the only UNHCR data available for Tibetan refugees is for those in Nepal.
Note 3: The number for Tibetans by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is based on its country report where China is listed as the country of asylum seekers. It is assumed that almost all are Tibetans because there is no mention of any Chinese refugees in that report but refers to Tibetans.

The 1998 CTA census indicated unusually high rates (63.7 percent) of internal seasonal or temporary migration in South Asia. Most of these migrants were children and youth attending boarding schools and universities, and monks and nuns attending religious teachings or events. Others were moving between various Indian cities and regions, selling seasonal goods.

"Escape" through Nepal

Because China has maintained strict controls and sanctions over the internal and external movement of Tibetans, most refugees have to "escape" surreptitiously through Nepal and other mountain passes in order to travel or emigrate to South Asia and the West.

Since 1959, most Tibetan refugees have crossed Himalayan mountain passes, largely by foot, into Nepal, an arduous and dangerous journey. For this reason, CTA set up the Kathmandu Reception Center (KRC) in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, which coordinates its activities with the UNHCR office to assist new Tibetan refugees on their way to Delhi and then on to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama.

According to UNHCR and KRC, which both keep records on Tibetan refugees, approximately 2,000 Tibetan refugees each year cross the Nepalese border. Some return to Tibet while others who remain are habilitated in one of many educational, monastic, or settlement institutions serving the Tibetan exile community.

Together, monks and students seeking education represent about 75 percent of Tibetans coming into exile (see Figure 1). In the 1998 CTA census of South Asian Tibetans, the majority of respondents claimed "displacement" as the primary reason they left Tibet, followed by education.

Figure 1. Composition of Recent Arrivals from Tibet in South Asia
Note: According to International Campaign for Free Tibet, around 2,500-3,500 Tibetans flee Tibet into India and Nepal annually.
Source: International Campaign for Tibet.

Furthermore, most respondents who answered "displacement" were monks or nuns seeking access to the high lamas and Tibetan monastic education of the reestablished monasteries in South Asia. In this respect, the vast majority of refugees are educational refugees, indirectly driven out by politics but more specifically by the effects of politics on education.

Since the March 2008 protests, the flow of Tibetan refugees to Nepal has stopped except for a very few who managed to escape despite the tight border controls. China has tightened its grip at the borders, and the Tibetan Reception Center (TRC) in Nepal, which UNHCR administers, is empty.

Indeed, the TRC director has been in Nepalese police custody since the end of June 2008, when he and other prominent Tibetan community leaders in Nepal were arrested on charges of "anti-China activities" and sentenced to 90 days in prison. This indicates a troubling trend of collusion between the Nepalese and China in obstructing Tibetan movement across the border as the Maoist party in Nepal gains popularity and power.

Dispersion to Europe, North America, and Oceania

The vast majority of Tibetan migrants who live outside of South and Central Asia were resettled from South Asian communities. The process of dispersion to the West began in the early 1960s, when the Swiss Red Cross resettled about 1,500 Tibetans in Switzerland.

Many of these Tibetans achieved higher levels of education than those in South Asia and Tibet and thrived economically. Approximately 2,000 Tibetans reside permanently in Switzerland today. The second-largest community of Tibetans in Europe is in the United Kingdom, which the London Office of Tibet in 2008 estimates to be 650.

According to estimates in the 1998 Tibetan CTA census, Scandinavia had about 110 Tibetans and 640 Tibetans lived in the remaining European countries combined.

Tibetans began moving to North America in the 1970s after the Dalai Lama encouraged both the Canadian and U.S. governments to accept refugees based on the success of the Swiss experience. Only Canada responded. This initial wave of Tibetan refugee rehabilitations was accomplished largely through the efforts of the Canadian High Commissioner in India.

In 1971-1972, 228 Tibetans arrived in Canada from India and Nepal. The Canadian government organized this first wave of Tibetans into settlements in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia. They were settled on the basis of affiliations with one of the four Tibetan Buddhist religious sects (Gelugpas in Lindsay, Ontario, and Montreal, Quebec; Nyingmas in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Sakyas in Lethbridge, Alberta; and Kagyus in Vancouver, British Columbia).

They began to work in industrial and service occupations as custodians and support workers in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes for senior citizens.

Although individual Tibetans and Tibetan families immigrated to the United States during this same period, the first formal movement took place in the early 1990s after the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990. Section 134 of this act authorized the issuance of "1,000 immigrant visa to 'displaced' Tibetans living in India and Nepal."

In response, CTA organized a lottery to determine which refugees would receive the visas, and by 1998, the U.S. Tibetan population in the United States had risen to 5,500 according to the CTA census, mainly due to family reunification. The 2000 U.S. census found a similar number (5,147) who reported Tibetan ancestry. The Office of Tibet in New York in 2008 estimates there are 9,000 Tibetans in the United States. It is probable that the number of Tibetans in the United States at any given time on visitor and short-term visas is much higher.

In more recent waves of Tibetan immigration to the Americas, Tibetans have tended to cluster in key urban centers in the Americas, namely Toronto (3,475) and New York (about 3,000), but also Minneapolis, San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Calgary, and Vancouver.

Between 2001 and 2006, the Tibetan population in Canada tripled to 4,275. Most of these Tibetans came from other diaspora communities in South Asia and the United States. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many Tibetans in the United States moved to Canada because they could get refugee status with most citizenship protections and rights, including full access to social services.

The implementation of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third-Country Agreement in December 2004 has slowed this movement across the U.S.-Canadian border. The agreement requires refugees to claim refugee status in the first country they land in.

However, Tibetans continue to move to Canada in relatively large numbers through the agreement's "stateless persons" provision and under the exceptions provided for family reunification. Marriages and new births account for more recent increases in the Canadian Tibetan population as well.

Tibetans in Australia and New Zealand emigrated there on their own, married nationals, or went to study, work, or engage in religious or cultural activities. Since the late 1990s, the Tibetan government in exile has sent some ex-political prisoners to Australia for resettlement and rehabilitation. According to the 2006 Australian census, 533 people claimed Tibetan ancestry; nearly half reported residing in the Sydney area. The 2006 New Zealand census counted 66 people of Tibetan ethnicity.

Editor's note (September 3, 2008): The article initially gave 111,170 as the estimated size of the Tibetan diaspora, the number given on the Central Tibetan Administration website. However, the authors consider the higher estimate of 122,078, given in a CTA Planning Department paper, more accurate. The article has been updated accordingly.


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