Tibetans form one of the smallest immigrant communities in both the United States and Canada; nevertheless, the Dalai Lama, head of Tibet’s government in exile in Dharamsala, India, has focused world attention on the human rights abuses against Buddhists in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and gained the support of most governments for enforcement of human rights and resettlement of Tibetan refugees. Official U.S. government policy recognizes Tibet to be a part of the PRC and so keeps no separate immigration figures. According to the Canadian census of 2001, 1,425 Canadians claimed Tibetan ancestry.
Tibet is a sparsely populated region occupying 471,700 square miles of high plateaus, massive mountains, and rocky wastelands. Its 2000 population was estimated at about 2.6 million, with all but about 300,000 being Tibetans. The religion of almost all Tibetans is a branch of Buddhism called Lamaism, which recognizes two Grand Lamas as reincarnated Buddhas. The Himalayas run along Tibet’s southern border with India, Nepal, and Bhutan and the Kunlun and Tanggula Mountains her northern border with China. During the seventh century, Tibet developed a powerful empire, still remote from the main centers of Chinese culture. Tibet borrowed heavily from Indian culture. After occupation by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Dalai Lama became the head of the Tibetan state until the early 19th century, when it was conquered by China. After the Revolution of 1911 and its overthrow of the Qing dynasty in China, Tibet became nominally independent until China reasserted control in 1951, while promising Tibetan autonomy and religious freedom. A Communist government was installed in 1953, revising the theocratic Lamaist rule, abolishing serfdom, and collectivizing the land. A Tibetan uprising in China in 1956 spread to Tibet in 1959. The rebellion was brutally crushed, and Buddhism was almost totally suppressed. The Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetans fled as refugees to India. Beginning in the 1960s, the Dalai Lama became an impassioned spokesman on behalf of human rights both in Tibet and around the world. From his capital in exile, he has maintained informal diplomatic contact with world leaders and proposed a self-governing Tibet “in association with the People’s Republic of China.” Largely on the basis of his practical attempt to solve this humanitarian crisis, in 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Chinese government was routinely condemned by human rights organizations and most world governments, including those of the United States and Canada, for systematic human rights abuses against Tibetans, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, secret trials, and religious suppression. During summer and autumn 2001, the leading center for Buddhist scholarship and practice on the Tibetan plateau was dismantled, Chinese authorities citing concerns over sanitation and hygiene. The Serthar Institute (also known as the Larung Gar Monastic Encampment) had more than 8,000 monks, nuns, and lay students, including 1,000 practitioners, before Chinese work teams forcibly expelled the students, destroyed more than 1,000 homes, and drove thousands of nuns and monks from the grounds. Finally, there was growing concern among Tibetans that the Chinese government was deliberately resettling large numbers of ethnic Chinese in Tibet for the purpose of undermining Tibetan autonomy.
From the mid-1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began to train Tibetan guerrillas, as the United States sought to undermine the expansion of Chinese Communist influence. In 1960, the Rockefeller Foundation established eight centers for Tibetan studies in the United States, and the following year, the first graduate program in Buddhist studies was opened at the University of Wisconsin. This growing awareness of Tibet’s international plight led to the slow migration of several hundred Tibetans, mostly religious leaders and teachers. In the late 1960s, several dozen Tibetan workers also immigrated to the United States. By 1985, about 500 Tibetans lived in the United States. In 1988, with support from private agencies and the U.S. government, the Tibetan United States Resettlement Project (TUSRP) was established, with the first group of 1,000 arriving in 1992. By 2002, about 8,650 Tibetans had settled in the United States, with about 40 percent living in the Northeast and 20 percent in the Midwest. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Tibetans live in New York City, and there are significant population centers in Minneapolis, Minnesota; northern California; and Boston, Massachusetts.
There were virtually no Tibetans in Canada before 1970. During the early 1970s, the Canadian government established the Tibetan Refugee Program (TRP), assisting 228 Tibetan refugees then living in India to resettle in Canada. Tibetan communities grew slowly, to a total of more than 500 by 1985. A second influx of Tibetan immigrants came between 1998 and 2001 with the arrival of about 1,000 from the New York City area who were granted refugee asylum status in Canada. By 2001, the Tibetan Canadian population had risen to more than 1,800, according to estimates. Almost 80 percent of Tibetan Canadians live in Toronto.