New Delhi, India – “We would be next, but we fear retaliations if we return”, says 44-year-old Sang Par, voicing the plea of several hundred members of the Chin community from Myanmar crammed into one-bedroom apartments in Chanakya Place, one of New Delhi’s most densely populated neighbourhoods.
As the Supreme Court of India deliberates the government’s plan to deport thousands of Rohingya refugees scattered across the country, other stateless Burmese ethnic groups fear a similar fate.
Last week, Bangladesh signed a memorandum of understanding, which would pave the way to repatriate 650,000 Rohingya refugees who fled atrocities in Myanmar.
A decade ago, Sang Par’s family also fled their hometown in Than Hang, in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin state.
“The army used to whip us with belts until we lost consciousness. They also killed the cattle so that villagers starve”, recalls Par’s husband, 44-year-old Mang Hmung, bedridden because of a chronic stomach disease.
Their five children receive free schooling at Don Bosco, an organisation with which the UNHCR has partnered, but several delays in rent payments have created tension with their landlord, who has threatened them with eviction.
Since the attempt to make Buddhism the state religion that preceded the 1962 coup in Burma, minorities have faced state violence, including the indigenous inhabitants of the largely mountainous Chin state.
They barely number half a million people, only one percent of the country’s population – 90 percent of whom are Christian.
Increasing militarisation and “Burmanization” after the 1988 declaration of martial law led to decades of arbitrary arrests and repression throughout Myanmar.
A fact-finding report [PDF] published by Physicians for Human Rights in 2011 stated that more than 90 percent of the surveyed households in the Chin state suffered forced labour while 15 percent reported torture by government soldiers, who are also accused of rape.
Further famine in their homeland, forced the Chin community into exile. Some fled to Malaysia. But up to 100,000 reportedly [PDF] sought to cross into the neighbouring northeastern Indian state of Mizoram; where they suffered discrimination, detentions and massive deportations detailed by Human Rights Watch.
Although India hosts one of the largest refugees populations in South Asia, its government is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. Nor does it have any national legislation relating to refugees, choosing instead to class them, asylum seekers, and other non-citizens all under the umbrella term ‘foreigner’.
Threatened in Myanmar and unprotected in India
The current number of Chin refugees in India is contested. According to the UNHCR office in New Delhi, there are 21,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar but only about 3,300 of them belong to the Chin community.
However, the Delhi-based Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO) counts 20,000 living in Indian soil, of whom 4,500 are settled in the capital.
Although India allows the presence of the UNHCR in its soil, their agreement is not guaranteed by law so the protection of refugees is often subject to foreign policy objectives and domestic public opinion.
Due to recent government changes, refugees face challenges in accessing public services and bank accounts.
“While new documentation processes are being developed, we advocate that long-term visas and UNHCR documents are recognised by authorities to facilitate their continued access to basic services and opportunities” explains Elsa Sherin Mathews, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in India.
The UNHCR issues refugee cards with which beneficiaries are eligible to apply for long-term visas, but very few successfully overcome the hurdles of India’s bureaucratic system.
We cannot even open bank accounts with it, and our children can't go to school without the required Indian ID.
“Local institutions don’t accept the refugee card,” says the 37-year-old mother of three, Manu Long Kan.
“We cannot even open bank accounts with it, and our children can’t go to school without the required Indian ID.”
A survey [PDF] conducted by the Jesuits Refugee Service (JRS) shows the rate of illiteracy among Chin children in New Delhi is higher than that of their parents.
Lacking official recognition, the Chin are exploited in the informal sector while risking constant evictions.
“We don’t have any rights. Employers fire us if we fall sick and can’t work”, says Kan’s 39-year-old husband, Salai Hnai Thang, referring to his wife’s health.
Absent from work for few days because of problems in her uterus, Manu Long Kan was never readmitted in her factory.
In the absence of UNHCR economic assistance for her medical treatment, Thang’s monthly salary of 5,000Rs ($77) in a book factory barely covers his wife’s medicines and the needs of their three children.
“Chin refugees protest in front of UNHCR [office] every year, seeking legal protection and asking for appropriate assistance but the system remains the same. Overall, they are not happy with the UNCHR and its partners” says Salai Cung Dawt, director at the CHRO brunch in New Delhi.
The UNHCR in India does not adequately protect refugees within its jurisdiction as it is overly sensitive to the unwritten restrictions placed by the government
With its headquarters in Rangoon and funds from NGOs including, the Open Society Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, and Canadian InterPares, the CHRO reports human rights violations of the Chin community and has provided them with legal assistance in India since 1995.
Through partner organisations, the UNHCR offers livelihood opportunities and subsistence allowances to refugees, the latter of which is provided on an exceptional basis to vulnerable refugees.
However, the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC) has claimed that these jobs pay below the minimum wage, and has also denounced UNHCR’s sexually discriminatory policies since the supporting stipend is only given to husbands, making women financially dependent.
“The UNHCR in India does not adequately protect refugees within its jurisdiction as it is overly sensitive to the unwritten restrictions placed by the government,” explains Ravi Nair, executive director at the SAHRDC.
“It has also failed to promote realistic durable solutions.
“These failings are compounded by the manner in which the UNHCR office and its employees have treated the refugee community.”
Responding to these allegations, UNHCR’s Elsa Sherin Mathews says: “UNHCR and partners support the Government of India in protecting refugees and asylum-seekers as much as possible. […] Wherever possible, UNHCR tries to find long-term solutions for refugees by facilitating their voluntary return, local integration or resettlement for a few vulnerable refugees with serious protection needs.
“Given the situation in many countries of origin, long-term solutions are not easily available for many refugees at present.”
Racism and sexual violence
Both the Chin refugees and supporting organisations have reported racist attacks and sexual violence at the hands of locals. The JRS’ survey accounts that more than 92 percent of Chin households in New Delhi felt unsafe in their neighbourhoods while 80 percent of them experienced evictions and physical assaults.
“My husband can’t work since he was badly beaten by locals. Two of my daughters have also been attacked,” 49-year-old Ngun Sui Men complains.
Although they have reported racist attacks to UNHCR’s social unit, no legal action was taken because as they never filed a police report.
People may think that Myanmar has changed but it's still controlled by the army and it's not safe to live there. So better die here than going back.
“We didn’t report to the authorities because we’re afraid of retaliations from locals”, she explains.
In order to meet the cost of their rent, Ngun Sui Men’s family used to earn an extra 7,000 Rupees ($109) by shipping traditional Chin dry fish to members of their community living abroad.
Earlier this year, though, her family was threatened with eviction by neighbours because of the stench.
Ngun Sui Men once hoped to return home after the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy.
“People may think that Myanmar has changed but it’s still controlled by the army and it’s not safe to live there,” she explains.
“So better die here than going back.”