Tibetan refugees in India get passports, finally

Tibetan refugees in India get passports, finally
PHOTO: Reuters

Event organiser Lobsang Wangyal has to travel overseas often, but as a Tibetan refugee born in India, he did not have a passport and sometimes had to wait days to get the mandatory permits every time he went abroad.

So Wangyal, whose parents fled Tibet as teenagers, went to court to demand his right to an Indian passport.

In response to his petition, the Delhi High Court said authorities must abide by an earlier ruling that all Tibetans born in India between January 1950 and July 1987 are Indian citizens by birth, and can be issued passports.

The order came into effect in March, and Wangyal got his Indian passport shortly thereafter, using it to go to Thailand.

For the first time, he was spared the additional scrutiny that his documents always got from immigration officials.

"I feel like a real person now, having obtained a passport," said Wangyal, 47, who was born in a Tibetan settlement in eastern Odisha state and now lives in the hill town Dharamsala.

"Tibetans are seen as refugees and as stateless in India. Being seen that way after having been born and lived our whole lives in India is unfair and impractical," he said.

Tibetans have been seeking asylum in India since the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese occupation.

The Tibetan spiritual leader has since lived mostly in Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where his supporters run a small government in exile and advocate for autonomy for Tibet by peaceful means.

More than 100,000 Tibetans live in 39 formal settlements and dozens of informal communities across India.

They generally arrive via Nepal, after a perilous trek across the Himalayas.

The Indian government has funded schools to provide free education for Tibetans, and reserved seats in medical and engineering colleges.

Those eligible can get voter identification cards.

But Tibetans do not have citizenship rights, which limits their access to government jobs and freedom of movement within and outside India.

They cannot own land or property.

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