Tibetans face severe discrimination and limits on freedom of movement under China’s passport system, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday.
The report found that China’s system for issuing passports has “severely restricted” travel for residents in areas populated by religious minorities, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uyghur minority.
China’s passport application process has two systems: a fast-track system introduced more than a decade ago for areas largely populated by the Han ethnic majority, while an older, slow-track system prevails in most religious minority areas.
Under the slow-track system applicants must provide far more extensive documentation. Those applying in the TAR must obtain approval from 10 different offices, an overly cumbersome process that falls short of international standards protecting the right to freedom of movement.
The report found some Tibetans had to wait five years before getting a passport; others were rejected outright.
“Chinese authorities should move swiftly to dismantle this blatantly discriminatory passport system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW.
“The restrictions also violate freedom of belief by denying or limiting religious minorities’ ability to participate in pilgrimages outside China.”
Additional restrictions placed on Tibet in 2012 have led to a near-total ban on foreign travel for residents, the report, “One Passport, Two Systems”, found.
That year the TAR government recalled all ordinary passports when the national government began rolling out “ePassports” – but replacement passports have not been issued unless for travellers on official business.
The report said that restrictions on foreign travel in Tibet were partly to prevent travel for religious study or pilgrimage, activities considered politically subversive.
“Chinese authorities seem to believe that systematically denying Tibetans’ rights to travel brings greater stability to the TAR,” Richardson said.
“But it’s respect for human rights – including equal access to passports – that might begin to reduce Tibetans’ distrust of the government.”
Chinese officials have denied that there is a ban on TAR residents’ access to passports, asserting the process is slower because it is more complex.