Tibetans and the Pandemic in Exile

Surbhi Mehta gives an overview of the experiences of Tibetans in India, during the pandemic and the lockdown. From community reposnses to xenophobic experiences, the resilient settlement attempted to leave no one behind.

For the Tibetans in India the novel coronavirus opened a Pandora’s box. Despite being one of the most successful refugee communities, the problems of exile have taken a new turn. At the community level, collectively as well as individually during the lockdown, they continued to undertake preventive measures and were even in a position to extend a helping hand to vulnerable groups nearby (Tenchoe 2020). Once the unlock phase kicked in, for the Tibetans stranded across the country transportation was arranged. Even the ones who owing to the lockdown had to stay put, settlement level initiatives were taken to accommodate them. But the green signal for Tibetan migrants overseas was flagged recently by the Union Home Ministry to allow them to return with a precondition of being already registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO)  (V. Singh 2020). This may come as a respite for some, but it must be assessed in the light of those Tibetans who owing to the difficulty of the paperwork involved in getting a passport, and lack of recognition of Registration Certificates and Identity Certificates often go for under the table means to facilitate their foreign travels and business, as a result their data is not in the official records (Falcone and Wangchuk 2008).

On the economic front the pandemic has hit the major source of income for majority of Tibetan refugees involved in the winter sweater selling business. The procurement process used to begin in June but the lockdown measures derailed it to the extent that the Tibetan Refugee Trader’s Association (TRTA) issued  a directive to not procure garments till September  (Khando 2020). At the time of writing this article, only a handful of traders in the green zones were able to commence their business and the majority of the businesses are shut. Since a lot of Tibetans have stopped going for the winter-wear business due to the pandemic their dependence on remittance has increased. This has prompted some students to even give up the prospects of studying further. It becomes pertinent in the backdrop of Tibetans being asked to pay fees at par with other international students in JNU. This issue along with lack of pension right for the Tibetan Soldiers got further racked up in the light of Sino-India border clashes when a Special Frontier Force (SFF) commando Nyima Tenzin was martyred and hailed as a hero for the Indians. While the emphasis on the secrecy of the SFF can be seen as a strategic necessity but release of complete pension benefits even for the ’pre-2009 retiree of Kargil campaign’ is a bureaucratic delay. This lack of a complete pension rights is both unnecessary and exploitative, as a result there is a decline in the number of people joining the Establishment 22 and, are further eying migration opportunities to the west (Shakya, Twitter 2020).

In such a situation if the financial problems persist many families will not be able to pay school fees of their children and will have to cut down on basic living cost. Even amidst these difficult times some of my respondents were quick to put emphasis on their Buddhist faith as it has made it possible for them to accept things. Thus, to help Tibetans tide through this difficult time the TRTA devised a plan to commence business as ‘one community’ and share the profits amongst the members along with seeking financial assistance from the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Such a community spirit was amplified even in case of Settlement specific strategies. During my field visit to Samyeling Settlement or Majnu ka Tilla Tibetan Settlement in the first week of September 2020 a similar sentiment was found. The settlement officer further emphasized, food and rations are not a matter of concern as they had already made sure that no household was deprived irrespective of their capacity to pay for them.  

Further on the containment and preventive measure he highlighted, the foremost concern was to send the students and Tibetan migrants back home on time. This they ensured by arranging bus services in consultation with local authorities. The ones who stayed back on rent, it was urged in the name of community spirit to not compel them to pay during this difficult time. Initially the attempts were made to gain access to COVID Relief programs announced by the GOI. But since Aadhar card was an essential requirement for availing the benefit, many Tibetans as a result were ineligible. That is why soon after, a common pool of essential items was created to ensure each member gets its share and even after which it was possible for them to distribute these essential items amongst other vulnerable groups in the neighborhood. 

On xenophobic experience during the pandemic, the initial months were fraught with fake messages and social media posts which claimed that “Tibetans residing in Bylakuppe had come from the border of China and thus, could be carriers of the coronavirus.” Since these rumors were easily spreading from the word of mouth the local authorities also warned of strict actions against the miscreants of this mischief (Correspondent 2020). Even the settlement officer of Samyeling Settlement shared a personal encounter of himself being called ‘Corona-virus’ and being labelled ‘Chinese-virus’ especially in the aftermath of Sino-India border incursions.

On probing what was his response after the incident, while he tried to clarify his position to the other person but was also quick to share the anecdote that a lot students who witnessed such racial comments have started purchasing more of ‘Free-Tibet’ T-shirts to distinguish themselves from the Chinese and exert their distinct identity. His testimony also corroborates the argument of Mousmi Mukherjee, where she highlights the experience of Tibetan students during the pandemic. In which many respondents affirmed the spike in the number of racist incidents towards their ethnicity with the spread of the pandemic (Mukherjee 2020). Some of my respondents too wavered across this continuum. From requesting no comments on this issue to explicitly sharing the details of the incidents where they some found people “swerve away” from them.

This pandemic also aggravates the resource competition which runs the risk of eroding goodwill and sympathy amongst the refugees and host communities. In the long term the risk can spiral into hostile interactions which may increase the vulnerability and precarity of Tibetan experience in India. Especially in the aftermath of Tibetan Rehabilitation policy (2014) which saw protests in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha against extension of ‘temporary land leases and welfare provisions to Tibetan Refugees residing in India’ (Fitzpatrick 2017) (Tibetan Review 2019). While these politically charged protests are quick to point towards the threat but they tend to overlook the small yet significant development benefits that these Tibetan settlements have brought in the remote corners of the country.

The COVID-19 has impacted everyone on all fronts be it physically, mentally or emotionally but for Tibetans like Tenzing the difference is that most of the Tibetans do not own land. As a result, from their economic lives to their personal lives in every sphere they have to negotiate to gain access to a piece of land. It could be for either to live or to find a space to embark on their winter-sweater selling business.

None of my respondents mentioned any bit about the gender-based-violence taking place in their community. But with the reports citing increase in the gender-based violence (GBV) and child abuse across the world due to heightened tensions and proximity with the perpetrators in the household, a Tibetan Women’s Helpline was instituted. This being a pilot program was launched for Tibetans only in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The efficacy of these initiatives is yet to be ascertained as victims voicing concerns for GBV or any kind of abuse often, have to face backlash from the community. Yet this must be appreciated as a step in the right direction as it encourages Tibetan women to speak up (Newsdesk, Phayul 2020) (Reporter, Tibet.net 2020).

All the images used in the article have been sourced by the author.

Surbhi Mehta is a doctoral student at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia
Islamia University, Delhi
. She can be reached at msurbhi210@gmail.com.


Correspondent, Special. 2020. The Hindu. March 16. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/mysuru-sp-frowns-on-false-messages-targeting-tibetans/article31076716.ece.

Falcone, Jessica, and Tsering Wangchuk. 2008. ““We’re Not Home”: Tibetan Refugees in India in the Twenty-First Century.” India Review 164-199.

Fitzpatrick, Sean. 2017. Contact Magazine. October 21. https://www.contactmagazine.net/articles/tibetan-rehabilitation-policy-sparks-protest-arunachal-pradesh/.

Khando, Tenzin. 2020. Covid-19 pandemic hits the only source of income for majority of Tibetan refugees. August 13. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/covid-19-pandemic-hits-the-only-source-of-income-for-majority-of-tibetan-refugees/articleshow/77521334.cms.

Mukherjee, Mousumi. 2020. “The pandemic and the Tibetan students.” Seminar Magazine 88-92.

Newsdesk, Phayul. 2020. Phayul. October 30. http://www.phayul.com/2020/10/30/44684/.

Nezurugo, Marie Penelope, and Sameera Hassan. 2020. On World Refugee Day, a look at COVID-19 is affecting refugees and asylum seekers. June 19. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/world-refugee-day-refugees-asylum-seekers-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-response/.

Reporter, Bureau. 2020. Tibet.net. April 17. https://tibet.net/women-empowerment-desk-and-twa-releases-hotline-for-sexual-and-genderbased-violence/.



Singh, Vijaita. 2020. Government nod for re-entry of Tibetans with return visas. September 26. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/government-nod-for-re-entry-of-tibetans-with-return-visas/article32703836.ece.

Tenchoe, Lobsang. 2020. COVID-19:Tibetans continues to undertake various relief measures. May 5. http://tibetexpress.net/12204/covid-19tibetans-continues-to-undertake-various-relief-measures/.

The World Bank. 2020. Refugee population by country or territory of asylum – South Asia. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.REFG?locations=8S.

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