‘I am a Tibetan’: The politics of identity and belonging among young Tibetans in Sikkim

‘I am a Tibetan’

The politics of identity and belonging among young Tibetans in Sikkim


Professor Heaven Crawley

Centre for Migration Policy Research, Swansea University

Since 1959 more than 120,000 Tibetans have followed the Dalai Lama into exile fearing religious, political and economic persecution and marginalization. Around 3,000 Tibetans continue to leave each year, crossing the Himalayas into Nepal and India. The majority of these refugees live in India which is also home to the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the government-in-exile established in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.

A significant proportion of Tibetans livein settlements established by the CTA with the support of the Indian authorities. Within these settlements, and the Tibetan community more generally, there is a strongly held view that the future of Tibet - and of Tibetan language, culture and identity - depends upon the next generation of Tibetans, most of whom have never visited their homeland and who feel politically, economically and socially marginalized in India and who are increasingly looking to take advantage of opportunities for resettlement in the US, Canada and Europe.

At the same time there are growing political differences between young Tibetans about the best way of securing a future for Tibet, exemplified by calls by the Tibetan Youth Congress for a move away from the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach, and increasing incidences of self-immolation within Tibet, many involving young people under the age of 25.

These shifts raise important and as yet unexplored questions about the extent to which it will be possible to maintain a consistent narrative around Tibetan identity, language and culture and the ways in which any generational differences and differences between young Tibetan themselves might translate politically.


Heaven Crawley is Professor of International Migration and Director of the Centre for Migration Policy Research (CMPR) at Swansea University. She was previously head of asylum and immigration research at the UK Home Office and Associate Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). 

Over the past 25 years Heaven has worked with refugees and asylum seekers from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. Her main interests are in better understanding the experiences of forced migrants including the reasons why people feel compelled to leave their countries of origin, their experiences of the journey to their new country and how they adapt to the social, economic and personal challenges and opportunities that living in a new country inevitably brings. She is also interested in the way in which the experiences of refugees are understood and represented, by policy makers, the media and society more generally.

Following her first visit to Sikkim in 2010, Heaven has developed a particular interest in the experiences of Tibetans living in India and in other parts of the world and is currently undertaking research with young Tibetans in Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh to better understand the complex issues of identity, language and culture in the Indian Himalayan region. She is also working with the Central Tibetan Administration to establish a Tibetan Youth Exchange Programme (TibetXChange) which will enable five young Tibetans from Sikkim to visit the UK to discuss the situation in Tibet and their hopes and aspirations for the future with staff, students, policy makers and members of the British public.

Heaven has written and published extensively on a wide range of asylum and immigration issues including the causes of forced migration to Europe, gender issues in procedures for Refugee Status Determination, public attitudes towards asylum and immigration issues and children’s experiences of immigration controls, including detention, guardianship and the process of age assessment. She has served as a specialist adviser to the both the Home Affairs Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and was recently conferred the title of Academician (AcSS) by the Academy of Social Sciences in recognition of her contribution to the social sciences and to evidence-based policy making.

Website: www.swansea.ac.uk/staff/science/geography/h.crawley/



Time and Place:

Date:   Monday, Jun 23, 2014
Venue:   Room No-13, CSSS II, JNU
Address:   Room No-13, CSSS II, JNU
City/Twon:   New Delhi
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