Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Thursday, 17 April 2008 18:38 UK

Spotlight falls on India's Tibetans

By Henri Astier
BBC News website

A Tibetan child holds a Tibetan flag in Srinagar, India, 17-4-2008
Generations of nationalistic Tibetans live in India
Protests against the Indian leg of the Olympic torch relay have put a spotlight on the country's large population of Tibetan exiles.

Tens of thousands have crossed into India since 1959, when Chinese put down a Tibetan uprising.

Many of the refugees were housed in settlements in southern and other parts of India in the 1960s and 1970s.

Because of dwindling economic opportunities in the settlements, more recent refugees have settled in the north.

The city of Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills, where the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile are based, is the hub of the diaspora.

Coming and going

The precise number of Tibetans now living in India is unknown. The most common estimates are between 100,000 and 120,000.

But according to Thierry Dodin of the London-based information service Tibetinfonet this is almost certainly too low, and the figure could be as high as 200,000.

Dalai Lama, 15 April 2008
The Dalai Lama enjoys huge prestige in his adoptive India and beyond

The picture is further blurred by fluctuations. Every year, at least 2,000 people arrive from China - mainly through remote mountain passes via Nepal - while unknown numbers return home.

Whatever the numbers, India's Tibetan minority is highly visible.

According to Mr Dodin, this is due to both the entrepreneurial zeal of many exiles, who have set up businesses and travel a lot, and to the prestige of the Dalai Lama - which is as high in India as it is in the West.

The activities of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) - as the government-in-exile is officially known - are closely monitored but fairly free.

Overt anti-Chinese agitation, however, is frowned upon. In March, Indian police barred several hundred exiles from starting a march on Tibet.

The CTA is not recognised as a government by any country - including India - but it receives aid for its work among exiles.

Transit point

The legal status of many Tibetan exiles is as unclear as their numbers.

Most of those who cross into Nepal lack valid travel documents and few obtain a card from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

Nepalese police pick up a Tibetan demonstrator in Kathmandu, 17-04-2008
Tibetan protesters were arrested outside China's embassy in Kathmandu

According to a 2003 paper by the agency, the Nepalese authorities want Tibetans "out of the country within two weeks".

Many are unable to obtain residence permits once they reach India, the UNHCR adds.

Indian residence permits, which were once routinely granted to Tibetans, are now only automatically available to the children of those who arrived before 1979.

There are ways for newcomers to overcome Indian reluctance to grant residency, but they involve lengthy tussles with officialdom and often bribes.

Those who obtain legal status are free to work and own property, but they do not have the same rights as citizens - such as formal participation in politics or the ability to carry an Indian passport - the UNHCR says.

In Nepal, the position of Tibetans is even more precarious. The country does not recognise refugee status.

Most Tibetans in Kathmandu have no papers and can be picked up by police.

Several hundred were detained in the capital after a wave of anti-Chinese demonstrations.

There are no reliable estimates of the numbers of Tibetans living in Nepal.

The country is keen not to antagonise China by putting out a welcome mat for Tibetan exiles, and is mainly used as a transit point.

There is also a small but influential Tibetan diaspora in Europe and the US. Mr Dodin puts their numbers in New York in the thousands, with newcomers arriving all the time, and about 800 in London.

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