Yangon protesters decry international “bullying” as persecuted Rohingya migrants flee for other Southeast Asian nations
New Delhi, India – Lal Pian Thanga pauses mid-conversation, frowning at the intruder that has been flying around the room, before turning back to me. His hair is still matted from the helmet he wears while riding to work.
The 35-year-old has just returned home from the school where he spends five hours each day teaching English and social sciences to children from grades one to seven.
He sits absolutely erect, speaking in short, measured sentences, a red pen sticking out of his shirt pocket. As yet another unauthorised assailant hovers into sight, he smiles apologetically and reaches for the tube of mosquito repellent lying next to him. “We spend all day covering ourselves with this. I really can’t afford to get bitten right now,” he says.
With more than 12,500 registered cases, 2015 has seen the worst outbreak of dengue fever in Delhi in 20 years. Across the city, residents are attempting to battle the buzzing harbingers of illness; reacting with varying levels of panic to inevitable mosquito bites and rushing to get blood tests when a persistent fever strikes.
One by one, Thanga, his wife, Lalnum, and their four-year-old son, Joel, fell victim to the vector-borne disease, spending several days of the summer recovering at a local clinic. Ironically, the disease felt like an equaliser he says: it chose to treat them just like any regular resident of the city.
A day in July
Born in a small village in the largely mountainous northwestern state of Chin in Myanmar, Thanga grew up in a family of rice farmers and traders, cultivating cucumbers, tomatoes and grain.
Since 1961, when Buddhism was declared the state religion, the Chin community, 90 percent of whose members are Christian, has faced violence and intimidation at the hands of the state.
After a 1988 coup saw the State Peace and Development Council seize power in Myanmar, militarisation increased across most regions, including Chin, with a proportional rise in human rights violations. Thousands of Chin residents escaped in the years that followed, mainly to Malaysia and India.
Thanga calmly describes the events of a single day in July 2007 that charted his course from an ancestral home in the hills of Myanmar to the one-bedroom house he now inhabits in one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in west Delhi.
“We were used to regular run-ins with the soldiers. Violent attacks on villagers were common. My father had fallen seriously ill while being detained without reason and died within five months of being released. Often, we were forced to carry military supplies in our carts while taking goods to the market. There was no choice in the matter. We just couldn’t say no,” he remembers.
“One day a group of soldiers confronted my sister and I on our way to the morning church service. One of them made a move towards her, saying he was going to rape her. I didn’t think. I reached out, wrestled his gun from his hands and threw it away from us. While he was looking for it, we raced back home. As soon as we got there, the meaning of what had happened struck me. They would be coming to arrest us any minute. There was no option but to escape.”
“I do not want to tell you the name of my village because I’m afraid they will find out and harass my mother who still lives there. But it is not very far from the border. We knew how to get across because we had lived close by all our lives. We waited overnight at a small border town while locals tried to find out when it was safe for us. We borrowed money from some businessmen known to us and the next day, we crossed into India.”
To the metropolis
Many of the refugees have settled in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, which shares much of its border with Chin state. But when Thanga and his 14-year-old sister Puii got to Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, they were advised to make a much longer journey. Several bus and train rides later, they arrived, exhausted, at the New Delhi Railway Station, 11 days after fleeing their home.
For Thanga, his first brush with a metropolis of such beastly proportions was overwhelming and frightening. His only reassurance was that they weren’t completely alone. Estimates place the number of Chin refugees in Delhi, driven to the Indian capital by the hope of navigating its hazy refugee policies, at between 5,000 and 7,000.
India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, which clearly lay down the definition of a refugee, as well as the protection and rights that he or she is entitled to. Nor does it have a specific domestic legislature addressing the issue. However, it allows the presence of an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi and a smaller one in Chennai.
The argument goes that its highly permeable borders and disputes with neighbours, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, have made India wary of binding itself to the provisions of these agreements. Yet it hosts one of the largest populations of refugees in South Asia.
Amid repeated demands by civil rights groups for India to adhere to these international guidelines, Shuchita Mehta, a UNHCR public information assistant, claims it is not right to make a blanket criticism of India’s refugee policy. “Despite not having signed the convention, India has a long history of being welcoming to refugees.The country is largely very hospitable when it comes to providing shelter to refugees,” she says.
While refugees from neighbouring countries are handled directly by the government on a case-by-case basis, the UNHCR is responsible for establishing the refugee status of those from non-neighbouring countries. The one exception is Myanmar.
Once refugee status is accorded to an asylum seeker, he or she is given a UNHCR card that, Mehta explains, safeguards them against arbitrary detention or deportation. It also entitles them to use the welfare schemes run by the UNHCR and its partners.
It was the promise of this certification that brought Thanga to Delhi. The UNHCR does not have authority in northeast India and Chin refugees in Mizoram are beyond help, doomed to remain “illegal immigrants”.
Refugee organisations say that getting the card is merely the beginning of a seemingly interminable process. Since it is not a document issued by the Indian government, not everyone recognises it.
“You can’t always use it for rent agreements or as proof of identity when applying for a job, let alone a SIM card,” says Thanga. And for a community 3,000km away from their loved ones back at home, the latter holds great value.
For a long-term stay visa, a separate application has to be made to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, a process that can take up to a year. “Thankfully it is now a free process after we protested to the National Commission for Minorities. Earlier, families were paying up to Rs 50,000 ($750) just for this registration. We don’t have that kind of money,” Thanga exclaims.
Financial uncertainties weigh heavily on most of the Chin community in Delhi. The UNHCR provides a subsistence allowance only to a small number of refugees who are physically disabled. Coming from a primarily agrarian background, often lacking basic documentation, and being unable to speak the language makes them easy targets for exploitation.
Searching for acceptance
When Thanga first moved to the city, he was employed in a factory making bags, working nine hours shifts for Rs 3,500 ($52) a month. Often, the owners would withhold part of his salary under the pretext of made-up taxes or fees. Physical injuries were met with wage cuts, jeopardising an already fickle cash flow.
After four years of being crouched over a table, cutting patterns over and over by hand, Thanga developed neuropathy. The numbness in his arms left him unable to work. “Those last few months were unbearable,” he recalls. “The other employees would rough me up, call me lazy, and mimic the movements of my spasm. The owners thought I was being difficult.”
Eventually, unable to cut anymore, he left and started teaching children at a school set up by, and for, the Chin community. “I had dropped out of school when I was 14, so I had to learn English after coming here through Speaking Classes. And by watching TV,” he chuckles, pointing to a small screen on the wall where a documentary on lions is playing on Animal Planet.
The job pays almost the same as the factory since only some of the students can afford tuition. But it grants something most refugees crave in the city – acceptance and a sense of belonging.
Faced with a steady stream of racist attacks, sexual violence and abuse at the hands of locals, the Chin community in Delhi has organised itself over the years. The Chin Refugee Committee and Delhi Chin Community Fellowship were established to ensure that the most vulnerable members have someone looking out for them.
This has been possible mainly because of the geographic concentration of the Chin refugees within west Delhi, fostering a sense of shared strength.
Thanga, who acted as the secretary of the fellowship until a few months ago, says many of the refugees have been disappointed by the UNHCR because of inefficiencies in the NGOs it works with. And that, he says, makes organisations like the committee and the fellowship crucial.
He describes some of the cases they’ve handled; from ensuring refugees get access to medical care, to interpreting and communicating with the police while reporting incidents of violence.
“Even now, many of us are afraid to go out at night. Just yesterday, two Chin girls who were returning from the funeral of their aunt were attacked with stones without any warning. One of them got away unhurt but the other is now getting treated for a head injury. It makes no sense. What did they do wrong?”
‘Delhi is my home’
A non-violent, everyday form of this racism often seeps into dealings with landlords. The fellowship has had to intercede on several occasions with house owners who are only too happy to evict refugees for reasons ranging from a slight delay in rent payment to offence at their cooking habits.
For an already displaced population, these forms of “othering” follow a worldwide script of discrimination, painting immigrants as “dirty, smelly, and promiscuous: outsiders in every way”.
Thanga says many Chin families have stopped making traditional dishes like ngapi, a type of fermented fish, because landlords complain about the smell.
“At least that coffee isn’t Burmese [from Myanmar, which was formally known as Burma]. I promise it isn’t smelly,” chimes in a voice from the door. A wide grin on her face, Lalnum points at my untouched cup sitting on the table. “It’s actually Chinese, but then what isn’t nowadays,” she whispers conspiratorially, prompting a rare smile to break her husband’s grave countenance.
Lalnum Tulang came to Delhi in 2008 with her sister, fearing violence after the arrest of their father. Part of the same Burma Mizo tribe as Thanga, they started noticing each other at community gatherings and church services. Two years later, they were married. Since Thanga’s neuropathy flared up, Lalnum has been the primary breadwinner for the family, working at a day-care centre set up by the UNHCR.
Quick to laugh, yet exuding an unbreakable stoicism, she tells me in halting Hindi that she’s uncertain about her contract or the centre itself lasting beyond the end of the year. The monthly salary of Rs 7,000 ($105) is sorely needed by the family, with almost all of it going towards rent and electricity. “We’ll make it work,” she says. “We have to.”
After the elections in November bought victory for Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy , some families within the refugee committee have started hoping for the possibility of return. Thanga, however, places little faith in change.
“Of course I miss my mother and my village. Of course I want the family to be together,” he says. “But how can I go back? I am stateless. There are no laws to protect us, nothing to stop the army from taking revenge. Burma was a beautiful country, it was a good place, but Myanmar does not want us. Delhi is our future. There are good people here also. I cannot say where I will lay my head for a final rest, but for now Delhi is my home.”