Small groups of Tibetan refugees sit sunning themselves on the banks of the Seine River in Conflans. They could easily be mistaken for picnickers if it were not for the worry on most of their faces. The majority live in tents hidden in nearby woodland.
Tashi*, a Tibetan in his early thirties, winds his way along a path that leads to the informal settlement. There are around 100 tents. Some of the tents move as their occupants take unsettled siestas inside. Others do chores: collecting water, cooking, hanging out washing.
Almost all are afraid to be interviewed, fearing both reprisals from Chinese authorities that have banned the practice of Buddhism in Tibet, and the French government they hope will grant them political asylum.
“To begin with I cried a lot because my parents were put in prison by the Chinese authorities because they got to hear that I had run away,” Tashi recounts, explaining how he fled Tibet earlier this year and made his way to neighbouring Nepal. From there he took four flights, walked for days and traveled for several hours in a car boot to reach France.
Tashi’s story echoes that of many of his compatriots in the camp who also made perilous journeys to reach France. All spoke of selling Dzi, Buddhist prayer beads that first appeared in Tibet over 3000 years ago and are crafted from agate rock. Most Tibetan families own a set of Dzi beads, but few know their material value, not least because Western search engines such as Google are banned in Tibet.
In recent years Dzi beads have become highly sought after by Buddhists far beyond Tibet. There is also a roaring trade in imitation Dzi beads, mainly in China. But it has done little to reduce demand for authentic Dzi beads that command prices of up to 10,000€.
The sale of his family’s Dzi beads is of little concern to Tashi, “What use are they if I am not allowed to practice my religion?”.
Tibet’s troubles with China began when the 13th Dalai Lama declared the country independent in 1913. Today the 14th Dalai Lama lives in exile in Dharamsala in northern India. He advocates for the independence of Tibet and discourages the Tibetan diaspora from integrating in their host countries in order to preserve their culture.
“Without our lord [14th Dalai Lama] there would be no more Tibetan culture,” Tashi declares, his friends nod profusely.
The Dalai Lama’s travels in the West from the 1970s helped elevate him to become one of the most recognisable people in the world. And the political turmoil that has swept through Tibet and its diaspora over the past century has strengthened the resolve of many Tibetans to practice their interpretation of Buddhism.
The plight of Tibetans to obtain cultural, political and religious freedom from China has resulted in many Western countries granting Tibetans asylum. Belgium, France, Germany, the US and Switzerland all have sizeable Tibetan populations. But the governments of these countries rarely challenge China on its human rights record in Tibet for fear of Chinese sanctions.
French culture shock
Most Tibetans living in the camp on the banks of the River Seine are confident they will be given a ten-year visa that allows them to work. But first they must wade through massive amounts of paperwork, all of which is in French.
A kilometre upstream, the barge “Je Sers” (I Serve) has become an unlikely refuge for Tibetans and refugees from other countries trying to navigate their way through French bureaucracy. The barge is run by the Catholic charity, La Pierre Blanche, that also runs a nearby food bank. Three meals a day for anything up to one hundred migrants are prepared on the barge.
“It is very important they learn how to be independent, and that they have something to do while their papers are processed,” explains Father Protais Kabila, a volunteer priest.
A lucky few are housed on the barge. But mainly it serves as a dry and warm meeting place for the hundreds of refugees who have yet to find accommodation, where they can wash clothes and charge their phones. The NGO also has a small army of volunteer French teachers.
“Unlike in northern European countries or The Netherlands, French people don’t tend to speak English. That's why it is essential that refugees learn French in order to integrate,” La Pierre Blanche’s president Hubert Behaghel reminds a group of refugees as he presents them with their DELF French language certificates at a graduation ceremony.
Of the various nationalities present, only the Tibetans were willing and able to sing their national anthem at the end of the ceremony. It is banned by the Chinese authorities, which explains why it is firmly imprinted in the minds of Tibetans in exile.
Twenty-four hours later, the camp on the banks of the River Seine is dismantled. French authorities provided accommodation to 120 out of the 200 Tibetans living in the camp. The remaining 80 are on the move again, hoping to be housed.
“Whatever happens, I will be fine now that I am free to practice my religion,” Tashi says as he packs his possessions for the umpteenth time this year.
*Tashi is a pseudonym to protect his identity.