Exiled in a Foreign Land
Ignored by all and sundry, the Chin refugees from Myanmar live lives of untold suffering and alienation here
Tripti Nath Delhi
West Delhi is best known for internationally acclaimed Indian cricketer Virat Kohli, the high-security Tihar Jail, homes of survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and an extremely large furniture market. It is also home to Chin refugees from Myanmar. Most of them live in the localities of Uttam Nagar, Jeevan Park, Asaladpur, Chanakya Place, Sitapuri, Hustal and Badola.
The Chin, who call themselves “the forgotten people”, are one of the major ethnic nationalities in Myanmar and are of Tibetan-Mongolian origin.
Asylum-seekers from Myanmar have been coming to India since the time the pro-democracy protests erupted in their country. Mizoram, which shares a 404-km border with the Chin State in the remote mountain ranges of north-western Myanmar, has been the most preferred destination for Chin people, primarily agriculturists and cultivators, fleeing without documents to escape human rights abuses and repression under abusive military rule. Till 2011, Myanmar was ruled by the longest running military dictatorship in the world. Thein Sein, a retired general of the Myanmar Army, took over as president of Myanmar in March 2011, after the country’s first election in 20 years in November 2010.
According to the Burma Centre in Delhi, 98 percent of the 80,000 Burmese refugees living in India are Chins. Delhi alone is home to 5,300 Chin refugees who are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At a demonstration in Jantar Mantar on June 20 on World Refugee Day, the Chin community voiced concerns related to their safety, denial of basic human rights, and widening communication gap with the UN refugee agency. They also asked why India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN International Convention on Refugees and Protocols on Refugees.
It is not for nothing that the Chin refugees are complaining about government schools denying admission to their children. Some are worried that the dreams of their children may never be fulfilled. Take the example of Escher Lalhruaithlunga who passed Class VIII from the Chin Refugee School in Chanakya Place in 2015 but was denied admission by a government school. Daughter of a factory worker, she says,“The school is only till Class VIII and when I sought admission to a government school in Asladpur, they denied me admission, saying that I do not have any government identity card. I am determined to become a doctor and have enrolled with the National Open School System to complete Class IX and X.”
Her father, Tinduthang, a Class VIII dropout who first came to Mizoram in 2008, does not want his children to miss out on education. Her mother does not keep good health but contributes to the family income by stitching clothes to ensure that her other two children go to the Chin Refugee School run by the church in Chanakya Place in Janakpuri.
Tinduthang pays a monthly rent of `3,500 for a single room in a West Delhi locality where they are surrounded by Chin refugees.Some Chin refugees have spent nearly 30 years longing to return to their homeland. Others have resigned themselves to their fate. More than half of what they earn in exploitative workplaces is spent on rent for matchbox-sized rooms. Most of them have no bank accounts and have difficulty getting SIM cards for mobile phones due to lack of documents.
Thanks to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the Uttam Nagar (east) Metro is half an hour from central Delhi. A 15-minute auto rickshaw ride from this station is all it takes to visit the Chin refugee settlement in a lower middle class neighbourhood. A stone’s throw from the main road, this locality is surrounded by roadside vendors selling Chinese electronic goods, seasonal fruits and boiled eggs. Most Chin families live in one-room rented accommodation and have just enough space to find a toehold. The precious little they have is nailed on the wall in puffed-up multi-coloured polythene bags, stuffed under beds or piled in corners.
Perhaps a compromised life miles away from their kith and kin, their hearths and homes, friends, culture and pleasant weather is safer than leading perilous and uncertain lives back home where the girls could be assaulted anytime and the men robbed, arrested, tortured and killed. Salaimnaithang, a middle-aged man I met in Uttam Nagar (east) has developed a chronic problem in his left ear as a result of torture inflicted on him by the Myanmar Army. His problem peaks in summer when the mercury soars to 48 degrees Celsius. As if this were not enough, refugees like Salaimnaithang don’t get medical attention when they visit the Delhi government hospitals. At least half a dozen refugee card-holders who feature in a 2015 documentary, Life of the Burmese and Chin Refugees in India, have alleged negligence by doctors of Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital run by the Delhi government. A young refugee interviewed in this documentary says, “I am living with HIV, have no job and roam the streets of Delhi in search of food that people throw for animals.”
According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees, most Chin refugees are concentrated in Delhi while some are in Mizoram because of cultural affinity. There are reports that a few live in south India.UNHCR India spokesperson Shuchita Mehta says there are around 35,475 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the Commission. While most are from Afghanistan and Myanmar, a small number of refugees are from countries like Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Somalia and Sudan.
The Chin refugees say that their siblings discourage them from returning to Myanmar as nobody can guarantee them protection. On World Refugees Day, the Myanmar refugee community contested news reports indicating that the situation in Myanmar is conducive for their return. Tinduh thang says that he speaks to his brothers and sisters from time to time, but they do not encourage him to return as the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, is unable to protect civilians from the Myanmar Army. Another Chin refugee, Naingnaing, 46, says it is very difficult to survive in India but the situation in his country is not conducive for return. “Even now, the Chins are running to Malaysia, India and Thailand.”
But experts like Sanjay Pulipaka from the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations and K. Yhome from the Observer Research Foundation are somewhat optimistic. Pulipaka says improvement in Myanmar’s political situation after 2010 and ethnic ceasefires alone will not make refugees decide to return to Myanmar. “The economic growth in Myanmar should generate enough confidence in them to go back and be able to lead lives better than what other countries can offer.”
Yhome, who has been to Myanmar a couple of times and met Chin refugees, agrees that there has been an overall improvement in the situation in that country after 2011. “A large number of refugees from ASEAN countries and India responded favourably to the then president, Thein Sein’s call in 2012 and returned, but a good number of people are still here. Unless the economy picks up, employment opportunities there won’t be good,” he said.
Alana Golemi set up the Burma Centre in Delhi in 2007 to advocate the rights of Burmese refugees. She says the number of Burmese refugees in India has dropped from nearly one lakh in 2000 to about 80,000. “There is no law for refugees in India. Some refugees have gone back, and others have gone to Canada, Malaysia, Norway, Thailand and the United States. The government in Myanmar must give employment to these refugees and ensure that they return to their homeland with dignity. The Chin refugees are scattered in Champhai, Aizawl and Faiha in Mizoram and are working as weavers or domestic help. Others have small businesses. Those who are lucky are working in BPOs in West Delhi.”
Golemi is concerned about the safety of Chin women. In 2013, she compiled cases of 20 Chin women in the 25 to 40 age group who complained of multiple attempts to rape and assault them. She says that she submitted the report to the UNHCR, but no action was taken. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Chin refugee said, “It is like moving from the frying pan into the fire. The women left their native land to escape abuse and harassment by soldiers, but the situation in Delhi is no different. Here, they live in fear as they have to face molestation and sexual assault on a daily basis.”
Neither Golemi nor human rights defender Suhas Chakma agree with the UNHCR‘s claims about protecting the interests of the Chin refugees. Chakma says the UNHCR neither provides subsistence allowance nor legal assistance when the rights of refugees are violated. Golemi argues that the UNHCR stopped open house meetings with Chin refugees in 2015. The UN agency for refugees, however, claims that it is in regular touch with refugees. The UNHCR India spokesperson says, “The UNHCR provides limited and time-bound financial assistance to the most vulnerable refugees, based on need. The financial assistance is reviewed periodically on the basis of socio-economic conditions.”
India’s best known socialist leader, George Fernandes, extended a helping hand to refugees from Myanmar including Chin refugees in the early 1990s. Aneel Hegde, who was then a young colleague of Fernandes’, recalls, “Even as India’s defence minister, Fernandes went out of his way to accommodate about 25 helpless young students of the All Burma Students League (ABSL) in the outhouse of his government bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg. He was deeply concerned about their human rights and was all for restoration of democracy in Myanmar.’’
Lalpianthanga, a Chin refugee in his mid-thirties, is disillusioned, living in Delhi. He introduced me to half a dozen people from his community in his modest home in Uttam Nagar (east) and said, “Education continues to be a big challenge. We met Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012, and she addressed about 200 Chin community members in Delhi. She advised us to study hard and assured us that she would try to facilitate our return.”Lalpianthanga works in a factory in Sitapuri and earns `5,000. From this, he has to pay a monthly rent of `3,000 for his one-room house, support his wife, 19-year-old sister-in-law and four-year-old son. “My father is no more and my mother is in her sixties. I had no option. So I came to India.”
Tongmang, 52, who got refugee status in 2008, also earns `5,000 by working in a factory and ends up paying `3,000 as rent for a small room in Sitapuri. It is not easy to support a family of six members in Delhi. His two sons, aged 21 and 19, dropped out of school two years back so that their teenaged sisters could attend school. “We are shelling out `1,000 as monthly school fee. The options are very limited. There is only one school till Class X. There are three others that are till Class VIII. Our community takes responsibility for managing the schools. We manage our expenses somehow by borrowing money from friends in the community or the church, repaying only to borrow again but neither me nor anybody in my family has a bank account,” he says.
Tongmang says, “After I got myself registered with the UNHCR, I got grant assistance for six months. My family was paid `5,000 every month but that relief lasted only six months. After that, I approached the UNHCR nearly half a dozen times but they paid me nothing.”Recalling his struggle, Tongmang says, “I was only 24 when I ran away from Myanmar with two younger friends in August 1988. We walked for three days to Mizoram. We knew nobody and started life from scratch. All we had was five kg rice that lasted us only two weeks.”For Tongmang, a matriculate, settling in India was not easy although it was here that he met his life partner and raised a family. Son of a farmer, he toiled for more than 10 years as a farm labourer in Mizoram. He was paid a daily wage of `40 for working for eight hours without a break. He came to Delhi in 2006 and got refugee status in December 2008.
Tongmang took part in the 1988 uprising. The fifth of seven siblings, Tongmang recalls that life was very difficult for his family in Myanmar as his father was a farmer. His parents are no more and his four brothers are now working in the paddy fields in his homeland. Tongmang feels that if he had not fled, he would have been arrested, tortured and killed.
Salaimnaithang, 37, a Class VII dropout from Chin State, came to Delhi in 2008 and got his refugee card in 2010. It was then that the UNHCR paid `2,300 to meet his family expenses. He complains that the lack of parity in special assistance to refugees creates bad blood within the community. “Even at the time of emergency or crisis, the UNHCR does not provide us any help.”
Salaimnaithang, the only child of his parents, works in a clothes dyeing company which pays him on a weekly basis. His wife gets daily wages for cutting fabric. His parents are no more. His father worked as a farmer on a paddy field in a small village in Tangku in Chin State. Before coming to India, he was working as a village leader and could not tolerate the manner in which the men from the Chin National Army would go about collecting rice from the paddy growers. “We had to comply with their authoritarian demands. Sometimes, they would come once a year or two times a year and take away 100 kilos of rice at one go. They would also demand money, 500 kyats (equal to `30) from each household. If people resisted their demands, they had no qualms kicking even elderly people. I was hit by the Myanmar military in March 2007 and developed an acute problem in my left ear which bled profusely. Due to lack of medical facilities in the village, my treatment got delayed by nearly four months. I fled from Mynamar to Mizoram and underwent an operation in the Mizoram civil hospital.’’
The UNHCR, which has had a presence in India since 1981, however, insists that all refugees have access to healthcare and education. In a written reply to my questions, the UNHCR India spokesperson said, “If there are incidents where they face procedural barriers, UNHCR and their partners advocate with concerned authorities to ensure equitable inclusion of refugees in the national system. Of late, the Deputy Director of Education (Schools), Directorate of Education, Government of National Capital Territory had issued a circular mentioning that for refugees’/asylum-seekers’ children seeking admission in government schools, any one of documents such as refugee card, refugee certificate, under consideration certificate, Long Travel Visa/Stay visa issued by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) may be considered as residential proof.”
Plagued by a multitude of problems, the Chins find some solace in social media that helps them renew ties with their long lost relatives and friends back home. That keeps them going. Tinduthang had lost touch with his family and tracked his five brothers on Facebook. “They were crying when they heard my voice. Thanks to Facebook, we reunited after six years.”