Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living in a Refugee Camp

I've been spending a lot of time in India recently, specifically living near Dharamsala. As a result, I spend a lot of my free time in Mcleod Ganj, considered the center of Tibetan society in exile, and also a big tourism spot.

Like any tourist attraction, it has its fair share of hotels, cheap hostels, coffee shops (my caffeine addiction is pleased with this), and lots of shops.

Many tourists come here with a "Shangrila" idea of Tibet and India, and the tourist industry does cater to that to a certain extent with courses on 'Tantra,' dozens, if not hundreds, of yoga courses (a few of which are genuine), astrology, hypnosis, past life regressions, and tarot. The last three are almost exclusively offered by westerners spending time in India.

And, like any tourist attraction, people come with a sense of entitlement, a belief that their every whim should be catered to. The customer is always right, and in the case of tourism, the entire locale is the "shop."

I've always found this attitude sickening, in any location. Like the American tourist in France who believes that yelling slowly in English will make them understood, and then acts as if its the fault of the French fruit seller on the street for not speaking English in France.

Are there times when it's okay to be demanding? Yes. You sign into your hotel room and find out that the promised AC is broken and the sheets are dirty, feel free to complain. But I'm sure you can see the difference.

However, here in Dharamsala and other Tibetan settlements, there is a much bigger problem. Most tourists here, and even many supporters who are well meaning, polite and well educated, forget what this place is.

This is a refugee camp. This is where people fleeing their country, arriving with nothing, settle because they have no where else to go. This is a refugee camp.

I cannot count the number of times I've seen a tourist screaming at a Tibetan shop keeper or waiter for misunderstanding English, not taking a moment to think that this person might be a newly arrived refugee from Tibet, who had little to no access to education. Most adult arrivals get less than 5 years of a meager, amateur English education and come out with limited functional English at best.

Most Tibetans are not in Dharamsala for Business. They did not come to Dharamsala to learn English, to open a shop, to open a restaurant, or open a hotel. They came here because of the lack of rights in their homeland, fear of arrest, fear of torture, a desire to live in freedom, the hope to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the chance to learn in a Tibetan supportive environment.

They have to learn some English to survive here. They have to work in a shop or a hotel or whatever in order to pay their rent (since owning land is nearly impossible for a refugee.)

Dharamsala does not overtly look like a refugee camp for a couple of reasons.

1) It's been around long enough that you have long established buildings and institutions instead of the imagined 'tent city' refugee camp. However, if you look at other long standing refugee camps and settlements (Palestinian ones come to mind) you are bound to see a lot more concrete apartment buildings than tents. It's how things go if you've been around for a while.

2) Problems are not easily viewable from the main street level, where most tourists confine themselves.

Not only is this by definition a refugee camp, but also the problems that are not easy to see are the same as those faced by refugees anywhere.

-Newly arrived Tibetans usually don't speak either Hindi or English.
-They usually arrive with little or no money or possessions
-They usually have no paperwork, aside from a refugee document issued in Kathmandu
-Many are severely traumatized due to experiences in Tibet or a difficult escape, some are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result
-Many are suffering physical ailments as a result of starvation during the escape, frostbite, and also illnesses due to the new environment, low altitude, and dirty water
-Upon arrival in India, many must wait months, and some even years, to get an RC (Identification card for non-Indian residents) and even longer to get an IC (travel documents)
-Without an RC, Tibetans can be detained by Indian police,who have been known to abuse detainees.
-Tibetans may be subject to official curfews, and unofficial curfews are self imposed due to the lack of RCs. Many Tibetans are afraid to go out after dark if they do not have their RC
-Tibetans face extreme difficulties getting permission to own businesses
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to own land
-It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to get Indian citizenship
-Many 2nd and 3rd generation exiles suffer from issues of identity and displacement, resulting in unemployment, and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.
-Clashes occur not uncommonly between local Indians who feel displaced by the Tibetan community, and the Tibetan refugees. These are often very violent.
-Tibetans can be financially abused by landlords and so on, because they feel as if they have no legal recourse.
-Extremely high numbers of parentless children

What does this sound like to you? It sure sounds like a refugee camp to me. All of us need to remember that.


  1. Can you fault a tourist for not realizing this, specifically those who only come for short periods and have no way to get past the glossy exterior?

    They lack the means to know the truth...

    It is completely different if someone has been volunteering for a long period of time, and had a number of means to get to know the Tibetan community. However, this post focuses on tourists, and as such, one must consider how one gets to know the truth of a situation: time. Someone in Dharamsala for a few days realistically does not have the time.

  2. A very good point. The bigger problem definitely is people being here longer. However, I think that for a lot of short term tourists, they come to see the Dalai Lama's residence and the Tibetan refugees, and they realize that this is a settlement for Tibetan refugees...but fail to realize that it's a REFUGEE CAMP. I don't have a good way to phrase that. So I think for some short term tourists, yes, it's the lack of time. I also think that for others, they know that this is a Tibetan refugee settlement, but don't think about it.

  3. Come on, lack of time is a pretty weak excuse. It's not like someone put a gun to these people's heads and said "Go be a tourist in Dharamsala for a couple days!" They chose to visit, and were able to make that choice as a result of their privilege. There's no magical "get out of trouble for flaunting your entitlement" card that tourists get when they go to a place that's foreign to them, but a lot of them sure do behave as if there's such a thing..

  4. Sure, I understand your point, but do you really think that "refugee camp" is an appealing tourist site?

    It may be that the people who read this blog, and will respond to these posts, are different than the average person, because most people that I know do not go on holiday to a refugee camp.

    One thing is settlement, another is refugee camp. As Metak said, I think that those who realize something of the situation here know that it is a settlement, without knowing what that means - specifically, the points listed in the primary post, above.

    I have had to explain the history of Tibet and why there are Tibetans in India to tourists. I guess some people come here because they hear that it is cool, and I know from personal experience that there are people who come here because they hear it is fun, or beautiful, or because the Dalai Lama lives here, without knowing why any of this is as it is.

    I imagine that some of these obnoxious tourists just think of this as a tourist trap built around the Dalai Lama...and the people working the trap get no respect?

  5. I'd say lack of time is a stupid excuse for the sense of entitlement and rude behavior, but for realizing that this IS a refugee settlement and what that means can take a bit of time. It's kind of in between in my opinion. I don't expect a tourist to grasp the full implications of this being a tibetan settlement without being here for a bit of time. However, that's not an excuse for rude, entitled behavior and I think that they SHOULD try to understand a bit of what this is, before coming.

  6. I want to clarify that in no way do I condone obnoxious behaviour: wherever I am, if I witness obnoxious behaviour, I cringe! Being rude to one's fellow man is not permissible in my opinion.

    But if we do not attempt to imagine or understand where people are coming from and the origin of their attitudes, we cannot conceive of ways to "correct" their attitudes. (correct being a subjective term, of course!)

  7. Many of the people I've met who come to India and specifically because of some interest involving the Tibetan people profess to have had a long interest in Buddhism, particularly in the Tibetan form or worked for years for "Tibetan causes" and so forth. What this has often meant is that they wear a mala on their wrist and say "Tashi Delek" a lot or "Julay" if they get as far as Ladakh. There is usually bowing involved as if it were Japan.

    I am being a little facetious but after witnessing this for nearly 10 years it gets irritating. People with global access to information, ie Internet, as well as professed interest in particular cultures have no excuse for the level of ignorance that is often displayed.

    These same folks will often do more research on the expensive coffee they buy in the morning (origins, chemical components, additives, chain of supply, profit margins, fair trade, organic, etc.) than on the culture they are going to visit for weeks or months of their lives.

    And lack of time doesn't really cut it as an excuse particularly if the person has indicated a long interest. And really why would someone go someplace if they weren't interested?

    The interest factor seems to be either genuine in which case an effort to understand will be made or just to collect another experience for the spiritual/progressive charm bracelet so as to outdo friends.

    The tourist as a victim of their own cultural ignorance is a poor excuse. It is not up to the people-as-scenery, which is often what happens to those dwelling in Dharamshala or elsewhere, to educate. That approach is an expression of further privilege and sense of entitlement. The people who dwell in the "exotic" places of the world are *NOT* there to service the ignorance of nor provide an entertaining backdrop to the global elites.

    I would expect, Metak, that people have a general grasp of the situation before entering it. But as we see in the news "adventure tourists" wander into Darfur, Iran and all kinds of places presuming an awful lot.

    I will restrain the rant on this issue in order to try to comply with your comment policy and save it for my own blog. But thanks for putting this blog out there. It's needed.

  8. NellaLou, I couldn't have said it better myself.

  9. Nella, thanks for your comments, I just finished reading them all. Pleased to have you as a reader on OT. It sounds like you have a lot of experience in this area. I look forward to hearing more from you.


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