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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Mr Thomas van der Molen

BSc MSc (VU University Amsterdam), MA (SOAS)


Thomas van der Molen
Mr Thomas van der Molen
Email address:
Thesis title:
Navigating Sovereignties: Social Navigation among Undocumented Tibetans in Nepal and Switzerland
Year of Study:
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Companionships emerging in light of ethnographic research have been most important in moving me along as an anthropologist. Among the first of these were encounters involving what I have called “fieldwork under surveillance.” The didactic value of undergoing this situation in the volatile context of working with young dissidents in Indian-controlled Kashmir was heightened by the reflexive approach I took to writing my first master’s thesis at VU University Amsterdam. I had the opportunity to further analyze the findings of my study in a peer-reviewed article on the “small, small incidents” staged by my interlocutors to mark their dissent against the military occupation of the Kashmir Valley. To this ethnographic baptism of fire were added encounters with young European Tibetans carried out in light of a subsequent master’s degree pursued at SOAS. There followed an ongoing doctoral project undertaken with undocumented Tibetans living in Nepal and Switzerland. The interests that I have related to my most recent ethnographic experiences have primarily included youth, migration, documentation, sovereignty, and social navigation.

PhD Research

Sovereignty may seem to equal severity in the everyday lives of people lacking legal status. They may feel that they are all at sea when it comes to carving out a political existence. The devastating shipwrecks of migrants endeavouring to cross the Mediterranean Sea have literally exemplified as much. Another case in point is provided by the experiences of Tibetan migrants awaiting Swiss asylum decisions as well as those whose requests for refuge have been rejected. Most of them previously stayed in India or Nepal for variable periods of time. Swiss judges do not grant asylum in all but a few of these cases. They have justified their decisions by arguing that the concerned migrants do not face a danger to life and limb or persecution. The official view is that they therefore do not meet the definition of “refugee” in the legal sense of the word. What results from a negative outcome is as ambivalent as the procedure that gives rise to it. Swiss migration bureaucrats are unable to deport Tibetans to India or Nepal on the grounds that the authorities of these countries profess not to know or accept them. The resulting stalemate paradoxically involves both the rejection of asylum applications and the reluctant retention of those concerned. The importance of ethnographically engaging with everyday endeavours made by migrants to deal with the volatility and opacity they experience in encountering those capable of dispensing or denying documentation has led me to envisage my current research.

PhD Publications

van der Molen, Thomas, and Ellen Bal. 2011. “Staging ‘Small, Small Incidents’: Dissent, Gender, and Militarization Among Young People in Kashmir.” Focaal (60): 93–107.


SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies