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Political instability, economic uncertainty and pressure from China bear down on one of world's most vulnerable populations.
HYANGJA, Nepal — In one corner of the Tashi Palkhel Tibetan nursery school here, giant alphabet cards gather dust near the chalkboard against the wall. On top of the refrigerator, a yellow toy truck sits idle. Puzzles, counting games, and action figures — worn from years of use — are ignored by the few students remaining in this tiny three-room school house.
It’s not that the nursery school in this moderate-sized refugee camp, 120 miles west of Kathmandu, is bursting at the seams with toys, or that the children remaining are reluctant to play. Instead, the inactivity is emblematic of larger trends sweeping Tibetan settlements across Nepal’s Himalayan mountain chain: lower birth rates, fewer marriages, and above all, a rush for the exits.
“Next two years, maybe we have to close the kindergarten because there just are not enough students,” says Pema Chodon, 39, who runs this camp’s all-Tibetan nursery school. “Due to fewer married people there are fewer children,” she says. “No future, no children.
“And no children,” she adds, “no future.”
Five decades ago, tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees fled Chinese-ruled Tibet, following their spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, into exile. Many went to India, where they were given refuge and land by New Delhi; some stayed here, in the then-Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, under a similar arrangement.
But as years turn into decades, exiles, advocates, and international observers say government instability in Nepal, along with increased economic uncertainty and heavy political pressure from China, is bearing down on one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Official numbers are hard to come by, but in more than two dozen interviews across Nepal in recent weeks, the story was the same: Tibetans are leaving the refuge they’ve called home since 1959.
The steep drop in student enrollment at camps like Tashi Palkhel — home to roughly 800 Tibetans refugees — tells the story. Since 1997, the number of children under 5 at the camp’s nursery has dropped 65 percent, according to camp records. Today there are just 30. At the nearby Tashi Ling Tibetan Settlement, which houses about 500 refugees, the number of school aged children has declined by nearly a tenth in the last two years.
But the biggest population slide, according to Yeshi Choedon, Tashi Ling’s secretary, is among men and women of marrying age. In the last three years, 14 percent of Tibetans at the smaller camp between 18 and 32 left the settlement, she said. Some headed south to India, though most went west, to the United States and Canada.
That Tibetans are leaving Nepal is not a uniquely Tibetan phenomenon. But the attention paid to the Tibetan exile community by China, a chief Nepalese benefactor and constant presence in Kathmandu’s political calculations, means Tibetans are increasingly vulnerable, experts say. As Nepal’s Tibetan population prepared to celebrate the 51st anniversary of their failed uprising against the People’s Republic of China last month, dozens of undocumented Tibetans were swept up in random raids, including one sweep that netted 13 as they ate noodles in a touristy section of town.