Refusal as Political Practice for Tibetans

December 13, 2022

On November 1, 2022, the Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement, and Humanitarian Responses at Yale MacMillan Center hosted Carole McGranahan, professor at the Departments of Anthropology and History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Drawing upon three decades of ethnographic research, Professor McGranahan traced Tibetan diaspora communities’ changing attitudes towards citizenship and refugee status and presented a theory of asylum, refusal, and political resistance (view video).   

McGranahan pointed out a major shift that has happened in the Tibetan refugee community in the past two decades, during which thousands of Tibetans migrated from South Asia to North America. She explained this change by first going over Tibetans’ six-decade history of refusing citizenship in South Asia. In 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama and began an exile in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The reconstituted Tibetan government based in India became the sole representative of the over 140,000 Tibetan exiles, who collectively refused citizenship in South Asia to demonstrate their determination to regain sovereignty inside Tibet. Many Tibetans should qualify for citizenship under Indian and Nepali citizenship laws through birth or an established connection to the country. As a result of refusal, however, in India, most Tibetans hold Foreigner Registration Certificates that require annual renewal and Identification Certificates that are not widely recognized outside South Asia. In Nepal, there has not been an official program to document Tibetans. Neither could they apply for the 1951 Refugee Convention recognized refugee status because no South Asian countries were signatories to the Convention or its 1967 Protocol. As a result, multiple generations of Tibetans have lived in South Asia under-documented or undocumented. 

In the late 20th and early 21st century, South Asia’s hospitality for Tibetans began to wane due to domestic and foreign pressure. McGranahan gave the example of India’s 2014 Tibet Rehabilitation Policy, which authorized the Indian government to terminate various rights of Tibetans in India and declared that Tibetans are refugees staying temporarily on humanitarian grounds. Unable to obtain Convention refugee status or receive easily accessible documentation in South Asia, Tibetans began to look elsewhere. The US Immigration Act of 1990 opened a window for Tibetans to migrate to North America by authorizing one-time immigration of 1,000 displaced Tibetans chosen by lottery. Following the inceptive migrants and their families, subsequent waves of Tibetans migrated to the US on temporary tourist visas. Initially settled mostly in Queens, New York, the emerging Tibetan community in the US sought to gain citizenship through political asylum as their temporary visas expired, and their employment needs intensified. However, not all Tibetans qualify for asylee status under the US’ highly individual-based approach to asylum assessment. 

In Canada, on the contrary, asylum determination is more based on a group sense of persecution and, McGranahan underscores, “membership of the exile community is what matters for Tibetans to gain asylum.” With the help of civil society organizations and social networks, many Tibetans were able to file Canadian asylum applications and transit at shelters on the US-Canadian border. In Canadian immigration courts, nonetheless, Tibetans largely have trouble proving their Tibetan identity, the sole proof of which is usually the “Green Book,” an identification document issued by the exile government that does not have international legal recognition. Meanwhile, poor translation services in court or the perceived necessity to speak Tibetan in court, lead their narratives to lose nuances and details. McGranahan also found that Tibetan asylum seekers, as well as other nationalities, are stereotypically known among some immigration judges as being instructed to tell fabricated or embellished stories and follow repetitive rhetoric. “The idea of Tibetaness doesn’t necessarily align with Canadian judges,” comments McGranahan, “some tribunal members do not like Tibetan asylum seekers.” Despite a mixed experience in the Canadian immigration system, Tibetans have made Canada a place where they recalibrate new experiences, friendships, and spaces. Today, the largest group of Tibetans outside Asia is in North America; within North America, the largest diaspora community is in Toronto. 

To McGranahan, the unfolding history of Tibetan refugee citizenship, documentation, and migration “challenges contemporary norms and possibilities for political status.” “Tibetans and exiles do so, first, by inhabiting to ostensibly oppose categories of refugee and citizen; and they do it second, by refusing to accept their sovereignty as past tense.” “Their current status, regardless of whether it is refugee or undocumented or stateless or citizen, rests in a temporality that is guided as much by a Buddhist sense of impermanence as by an irreverence for international norms.” 

The Tibetan diaspora’s experience led McGranahan to construct a theory of refusal as a 21st-century intervention into possibilities for citizenship and sovereignty. Refusal is a “willful, conscious political act,” “a deliberate move towards one belief, practice, or community, and away from another.” Refusal can be both generative and strategic. “The generative aspect of refusal,” articulates McGranahan, “recognized the sociality of saying no and links refusal to resistance, but she underlined that “refusal is not a synonym for resistance.” While resistance involves “consciously defying for opposing superiors in a context of differential power,” refusal “rejects subjugation and hierarchy as a position from which action is taken.” In this sense, the politics of refusal entails relationships as existing between equals and rests upon equity. For the Tibetan diaspora, McGranahan believes that their “strategies might change, but the goal remains the same” – refusal is a transition from the probable to the possible and, therefore, hope. 

Beyond the specific case of Tibetan refugees, McGranahan’s ethnography sheds light on the role of ethnographic research in the field of migration studies in general. She emphasizes that it is important for research to respond to the needs of specific political moments and take advantage of the complementarity of different methods. “Ethnography is not just another qualitative method,” said McGranahan, “it is epistemology and theory.” “Ethnographic knowledge is vital for understanding experiences of refugees alongside political, historic, or legal knowledge,” she continued, “ethnography provides us with a unique and complementary way of knowing.”  

Written by Joy Yue, a Master’s in Public Policy student at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale.