China has imposed a double-tiered passport policy that effectively restricts Tibetans, Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities from leaving the country, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. The group has urged the Chinese government to end the discriminatory passport practices.

The report, released on Monday, found that residents in areas with substantial Tibetan and Muslim populations may wait for up to five years before being issued a passport. Some have been refused access to passports without any explanation.

It only takes up to 15 days for the government to process a passport application for residents in areas populated by the majority Han Chinese.

The system was partially designed to stop Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghurs, and Hui Muslims from foreign travel for religious purposes, such as pilgrimages to Mecca for some Muslims and teachings of the Dalai Lama in India for Tibetans, HRW said.

Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr.
The Dalai Lama at a teaching. Photo: Christopher Michel via Flickr.

The ban apparently aims at preventing religious minorities from engaging in “separatist activities”. An internal notice issued by Chinese authorities in 2012 declared that attending teachings by the Dalai Lama was considered to be a “subversive political activity”.

The report quoted a Tibetan blogger saying, “Getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into heaven. This is one of those ‘preferential policies’ given to us Tibetans by [China’s] central government.”

The Chinese government has reportedly confiscated all ordinary passports held by residents in the Tibet Autonomous Region since 2012, preventing nearly all of the three million residents of the region from leaving China since that time.

“Chinese authorities seem to believe that systematically denying Tibetans’ rights to travel brings greater stability to the Tibet Autonomous Region,” said HRW’s China Director Sophie Richardson in a statement. “But it’s respect for human rights – including equal access to passports – that might begin to reduce Tibetans’ distrust of the government.”

HRW has urged the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and incorporate international law on the right to freedom of movement into domestic law.

Uyghurs in Yarkand, Xinjiang. Photo: inchiki tour via Flickr.

Chinese officials have reportedly denied that there is a ban on religious minorities obtaining passports, and said that the process is slower because it is more complex for some applicants.

The report is based on official documents from Chinese authorities and interviews with Tibetans and others, but HRW added that the research was limited by constraints imposed by the Chinese government, which is “hostile to research by international human rights organisations”.

The report came days after a Tibetan monk set himself on fire in a public square to protest against the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tibetan Buddhism, marking the sixth burning this year and the 142th since self-immolations by Tibetans were first recorded in 2009.

Religious and ethnic minorities in China have been protesting against the Chinese government for treating them as second class citizens. Some have resorted to violent retaliation.

The Chinese government’s counter-terrorism efforts mainly target “militants” based in Xinjiang and Tibet in order to prevent the spread of violence and “separatist” ideology. On Monday, three “violent Xinjiang terrorists” who reportedly shouted “holy war slogans” were shot dead by the Chinese police. The day before, a 65-year-old Tibetan lama, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, died in prison, 13 years into a 20-year sentence for involvement in a bomb attack. Rights groups have said that the charges were false.

Critics and rights groups have warned that the counter-terrorism measures are counterproductive and a source of instability in the region. They have also criticised Chinese authorities’ restrictions on religious minorities’ freedom of belief, such as the heavy-handed Ramadan policy on Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.