As Chinese border guards searched the cargo truck he was hiding in, Yonten’s heart began to race. If they discovered him among the boxes, his attempt to escape Tibet would be over and he would end up in prison instead of India.
“I’m lucky I made it,” he said in an interview in Dharamsala, in northern India, where he has been granted asylum. “There are hundreds thinking of fleeing every day, but they fear being caught and further tortured by the Chinese police.”
The Tibetan exile spoke under the assumed name of Yonten for fear of reprisals against his family back home. China’s repressive policies in Tibet have been well documented, and rights groups say that activists and those trying to flee are often detained and tortured.
Following a crackdown on civil unrest in 2008, China stepped up its surveillance of Tibetans, tightened border security, and leaned on neighbouring Nepal to restrict entrance and send refugees back. Data provided to IRIN by the Tibetan Reception Centre in Dharamsala shows that the measures appear to have worked.
The number of Tibetans arriving in India fell from 3,320 in 2005 to 608 in 2008. In 2014, the year Yonten made it across the border into Nepal and onward to India, he was one of only 93 arrivals. So far this year, just six Tibetan refugees have made it.
An official who answered the phone at China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing declined to answer questions about Tibet, but past official statements have largely ignored allegations of human rights abuses. Instead, China tends to emphasize investment and economic development in Tibet.
For example, the state-owned Xinhua news agency reported that China has invested $4.9 billion in water infrastructure over the past two decades, irrigating 200,000 hectares and providing safe drinking water for 2.4 million people. Another Xinhua article emphasised Tibet’s double-digit economic growth over the same time period.
Economic growth may be convincing some Tibetans to stay home, but it is unlikely to entirely account for the precipitous drop in refugee arrivals in India since 2008. And in the minds of many Tibetan refugees and activists, economic development does not make up for China’s sometimes brutal history in the region.
China annexed Tibet in 1950 and brutally repressed a rebellion in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama escaped with thousands of followers and settled in India. By 2001, at least 110,000 Tibetans had fled to India, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
But the flood of Tibetan refugees was reduced to a trickle after the unrest of March 2008, which began with protests by Buddhist monks, but turned into riots. Police battled protestors, while some Tibetans also attacked members of communities who had migrated to Tibet from the rest of China. Estimates of the number killed and injured range from scores to hundreds, but it’s difficult to say with any certainty since China strictly limits media access to Tibet.
A two-year investigation on the crackdown by Human Rights Watch found that “Chinese forces broke international law – including prohibitions against disproportionate use of force, torture and arbitrary detention, as well as the right to peaceful assembly”.
In addition to imposing measures to prevent Tibetans from leaving their homeland, China has exerted pressure on neighbouring Nepal. Although India and Tibet do share a border, much of the frontier is disputed and militarized, and the rugged territory high in the Himalayas makes it a difficult crossing. Nepal remains the main route from Tibet to India, although it has become more restricted over the past few years.
“As a result of a massive security presence in Tibetan areas of China and increased cooperation between Nepalese and Chinese security forces in recent years, China has been able to stem the flow of Tibetan refugees escaping to Nepal,” said HRW in a 2014 report.
Nepal’s apparent cooperation with China has coincided with a surge of Chinese investment in that country, suggesting that there may be economic factors at play.
Nepal’s Foreign Ministry said it would respond to questions from IRIN but did not reply before publication. When the HRW report was released, an official told the AFP news agency that Nepal was not deporting refugees, but was treating them humanely, and was not under pressure from China.
Other sources, however, said the allegations were true.
When approached for comment on the number and treatment of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, UNHCR referred IRIN to the Tibetan Refugee Reception Centre, which it works with in that country.
“The Chinese government puts a lot of pressure on the Nepalese government to act against Tibetans escaping across the border and, in that course, hundreds get deported and, thereafter, the Chinese army detains and tortures them,” said a spokesperson from the centre. “This has become a norm since the past five to seven years.”
Even as China has stepped up security along the border, Tibetans are now subject to severe travel restrictions even within Tibet, said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Programme at Columbia University.
“Controls have been increased not just at the border itself, but on the roads leading to the border areas, and special permits are required to enter those within about 30 kilometres of the border,” he told IRIN. “There have also been increased controls on travel throughout Tibet as well.”
(PHOTO: Tibetan Buddhist monks listen to a speech by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in 2012. Saransh Sehgal/India)