Denial of passports to Tibetans and Canada’s new visa policy

BY CAROLE SAMDUP (Montreal) - Last week’s announcement by Minister of Immigration John McCallum that the Government of Canada will increase the number of visas it offers to Chinese tourists, students, and temporary workers, was welcomed as another example of Canada’s special relationship with China.

The Minister also told reporters in Vancouver that he had recently met with officials in Beijing to request permission for more Canadian visa offices in China, suggesting an increase from five to ten and eventually tripling the number to fifteen.  According to media reports, McCallum characterized the new policy as a potential boost for the Canadian economy.

Canada is a country made up of immigrants and we have no inherent objection to increasing the number of people welcomed to this country from around the world, including from China.  However, in relation to China, Canada runs the risk of inadvertently endorsing discriminatory Chinese policies that deny passports to Tibetans. The denial of passports means that Tibetans are excluded from travel opportunities and associated benefits enjoyed by Chinese nationals.

China’s policy to deny passports to Tibetans first came to light in 2012 when the country-wide transition to electronic documents required each passport holder to turn in their passports for replacement.  In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Tibetans were required to undergo a political investigation including a review by the TAR Military District Political Department as a precondition of receiving a new passport.

As a result, since 2012 very few passports have been issued to ordinary Tibetans, although there have been exceptions – some officials, the children of officials, and prominent businesspeople have reportedly been able to secure travel documents.  This is despite the fact that the number of passports issued to Chinese nationals has risen by 20% each year in the same time period.

The denial of passports prevents Tibetans from taking vacations abroad, attending religious events in other countries, or securing equal access to international education opportunities.

To illustrate, in 2013 forty-two students, mostly young girls from poor nomadic families on the Tibetan plateau, were offered scholarships to study in the United States based on test scores.  All were denied passports and subsequently lost the opportunity.

For those Tibetans who have managed to obtain travel documents, strict new regulations limit their activities outside of China.  For example, Tibetans returning from a religious teaching (Kalachakra) in India given by the Dalai Lama in 2012 were detained by police upon return and forced to undergo ‘patriotic education’.  Some were imprisoned or subjected to hard labor.  All had their passports confiscated.

Now, with news that Canada will welcome more Chinese passport holders to Canada, China’s discriminatory policies against Tibetans will become Canadian policies by default.

It is not possible to know how many of the 400,000 multiple entry Canadian visas given to applicants from China last year went to ethnic Tibetans.  We suspect very few, if any. Certainly any Tibetan who did obtain both a passport from the Government of China and a visa to Canada, was not able to interact with Tibetan-Canadians while in this country for fear of repercussions upon return home.

What is Canada to do?  Will our government move ahead with its proposed new policy while turning a blind eye to the exclusion of Tibetans as beneficiaries?  If so, is Canada applying a double standard when it increases the number of visas given to Chinese citizens but says nothing about the denial of travel documents to Tibetans?

Canadian officials in Beijing should have been more sensitive to this challenge.  In Canada, we have had our own debates about the rights of citizenship, and Prime Minister Trudeau proclaimed that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.   He was emphatic that each and every citizen has the same rights, equal rights.  Yet, Minister McCallum’s announcement did not acknowledge discriminatory access to passports in China, let alone put forward suggestions about how Canada might address it.

As this government increases its engagement with China, it must at the same time find a way to confront associated challenges.  Canada’s request to increase the number of Canadian visa offices in China must include the request for an office in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, as pre-requisite for the new visa program to proceed.  Any government funded programs that facilitate temporary work or education opportunities for Chinese nationals in Canada must include quotas for ordinary Tibetans from inside Tibet.  Once in Canada, Tibetans should be free to interact with Canadians of Tibetan origin and to take religious teachings as they wish without the fear of repercussion at home.

Finally, the Government of Canada must consider what it will do if China remains unmoved, and continues to deny equal access to passports for Tibetans.

Carole Samdup is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee

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