By Victor Biak Lian
Chin Human Rights Organization
Regional Conference on Protection for Refugees from Burma
Chiangmai University, Chiangmai, Thailand
Nov. 6-7, 2003
I am very pleased to have this opportunity of talking about the situation of refugees from Burma in India. I am equally pleased for this rare opportunity of highlighting the condition of the least acknowledged yet one of the most in need of attentions by the international community. When talking about Burma’s displaced persons one is easily drawn to the conditions of those who have been displaced by decades of civil war in the eastern border of the country. But very little attention has been paid to the condition of thousands of people who have been experiencing an equally difficult situation with that of people in Burma’s western frontiers. Burma shares its western borders with India and Bangladesh and much of that frontier is adjacent to India’s northeastern region.
It is estimated that well over 50,000 refugees from Burma are currently living in India. The continuing lack of adequate protection mechanism for Burmese refugees in India makes it impossible to more than estimate the number of Burmese refugees. This is because of the fact that except for those who are able to approach UNHCR in New Delhi for protection, the majority of Burmese refugees in India are afraid to identify themselves as refugees, although careful scrutiny of their circumstances clearly suggest that they could fall within the meaning of refugee definition.
Most of the refugees from Burma are ethic Chins and they are mainly concentrated in India’s northeastern province of Mizoram. After a sudden influx of refugees following the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1998, thousands of Chins have fled their homes to escape repression and systematic violations of human rights in Burma. Currently, Mizoram alone houses at least 50,000 refugees from Burma, while a few thousand refugees are found in Manipur and other areas along the borders with Burma. Neither the Government of India nor the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi has acknowledged the presence of Burmese refugees in the border areas. As of March 2003, only 1003 individuals have been recognized by UNHCR in New Delhi.
The pattern of refugee exodus from Burma can be divided into two categories: Those fleeing to India in the immediate aftermath of 1988 and those who have crossed into India steadily since the early 1990ies to the present. The first category includes university students and youth who participated in the 1988 uprising and who subsequently fled to India to escape a brutal military crackdown. The second category includes ordinary civilians and villagers who fled various kinds of human rights violations in the form of arbitrary arrest, torture, forced labor and religious persecutions. Chins are predominantly Christians and Burmese soldiers have destroyed Churches, arrested and tortured pastors and evangelists, and have routinely exacted forced labor from Christians to build Buddhist pagodas. Ongoing insurgency and counter-insurgency programs are also major factors for refugee flight from Chin State.
India’s attitudes towards Burmese refugees
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its related Protocol. While the Government of India initially quickly reacted to refugee outflow triggered by the 1988 uprising by setting up refugee camps for refugees identified in the first category, since 1992, it had withdrawn the camps and cancelled the provision of all humanitarian assistance to Burmese refugees. This dramatic policy reversion had considerably affected the lives of thousands and had increased the vulnerability of refugees to arrest and deportation to Burma.
On many occasions, India has forcibly returned Burmese refugees to Burma. In 2006, India extradited eleven Burmese army defectors some of whom were already recognized as ‘person of concern’ by UNHCR. Due to the lack of legal protection for Burmese refugees in the border, they are easily identified as economic migrants.
Close cultural and linguistic similarity with the Mizos also allow the Chins to easily integrate into the local society, and thereby being able to acquire employment in low-paid job such as weaving industry and road construction etc. Chin refugees often try to keep a low profile of their presence by getting absorbed into local Mizo communities to avoid being identified as “foreigners” or illegal immigrants. While they attempt to keep down visibility among the local populations, they often become particular target of scapegoats for local political parties in times of provincial legislative elections. In 2000, Mizoram authorities forcibly repatriated hundreds of Chin refugees to Burma. Out of hundreds of returnees, at least 87 people were reported to have been arrested and sent to forced labor camps in Burma.
Again in March 2002, the Young Mizo Association, a broad-based social organization ordered the eviction of Chin refugees in Lunglei District, leaving at least 5000 Chin refugee families homeless. Since July 19, 2003, in response to a rape incident in which a Burmese national was alleged to be responsible, the Young Mizo Association started to evict thousands of Chin refugees from their houses in Mizoram. The eviction, which is still ongoing, has resulted in the forced return of over 6000 Chin refugees to Burma. This latest drive of expulsion of Chin refugees is particularly alarming given that both the local communities under direction from the Young Mizo Association and Mizoram authorities have cooperated in evicting and sending back Chin refugees to Burma.
India has still not shown interest in the protection of Burmese refugees. Instead its primary interest since mid 1990s has been to build friendly relations with the military regime of Burma. The obvious consequence of increasing friendly relations between the two countries is that it creates a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability among the Burmese refugees in India.
The role of UNHCR
UNHCR in New Delhi currently has about one thousand recognized Burmese refugees. This means that only a small fraction of Burmese refugee in India enjoy legal protection in India. Even those who have been recognized as refugees find themselves in precarious situations in New Delhi. UNHCR has provided a monthly financial assistance of Rs.1400 (About 30$) to recognized refugees. However, since March of 2003, UNHCR has cut financial assistance to many refugees saying that the provision of assistance to Burmese refugees has deterred them from seeking means of self-reliance, and that the termination of assistance to old refugees will accommodate new arrivals. Burmese refugees are already living in precarious conditions and it is predictable that they will encounter an even more serious problem once the full termination of their assistance took effect. The Indian authorities have issued them with residence permits, but denial of work permits makes any attempt at self-reliance almost impossible and illegal.
Refugees who have been recognized by UNHCR in New Delhi are treated as urban refugees. And the policy of UNHCR on urban refugees in India generally presumes that refugees can easily integrate themselves into local communities. Local integration is a term that implies that refugees are able to find safety, both physical protection and social integration into the local communities. This has not worked for urban refugees, especially refugees from Burma who for reasons of cultural, religious and linguistic differences have made them unable to achieve local integration. UNHCR in New Delhi hasn’t accepted ‘third resettlement’ as part of its strategy to find durable solution to refugee problem. Neither has it acknowledged its failure with regards to the policies of trying to achieve durable solution through local integration for Burmese refugees. In fact, most Burmese refugees are unskilled and cannot speak the local language, and therefore cannot simple find employment in India where there are already millions of unemployed people.
UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva has said it has not considered advocating for establishment of its presence in the border. This is disturbing given that there are well over 50,000 Chin refugees in Mizoram who are in desperate need of protection.
There are about 400 Chin and Kachin refugees who are protesting in front of UNHCR office in Delhi for 14 consecutive days, demanding for two things. One is to recognize those whose application for refugee status had been turned down. Second is to resettle into third countries. However, UNHCR officials had not response until today instead they call local police to arrest them. When police intervene, kicking, punching, arrest followed and take them away from the office.
In conclusion, there is an urgent need of greater international attention to the conditions of Burmese refugees in India. Protection mechanism needs to be in place for refugees from Burma who take shelter in Mizoram. This will only be possible if UNHCR assumes greater role in the protection of Burmese refugees by advocating for establishment of its presence in the border. India should positively respond by allowing UNHCR access to the border areas and by issuing work permits to Burmese refugees.
The need for humanitarian and relief assistance to refugees in the border areas is no less important. Governments and international donor organizations should seriously look into the possibility of channeling assistance to the most vulnerable and most needy persons in Mizoram. Since evictions started in Mizoram in 2003, nearly two hundred refugees from Burma had gathered in at least two rural villages whose residents have been very sympathetic to the plights Burmese refugees as to provide them with food and shelters. These villages could serve as a jumpstart for providing humanitarian assistance to refugees in the border areas.
——————————————————————————– UNHCR’s Chief of Mission Lennart Kotsalainen’s letter to the Nordic Burma Support Groups, 3 March 2003, New Delhi  More information on human rights situations in Chin State is available at www.chro.org  In 1996, six Burmese soldiers from an army battalion based in Chin State defected to the Chin National Army. They later approached the UNHCR in New Delhi and were subsequently recognized as refugees. A high ranking Indian intelligence officer was identified as being responsible for their extradition. Some of the defectors were reportedly executed in Burma.  Amnesty International: PUBLIC AI Index: ASA 20/40/00 UA 234/00 Possible forcible return of asylum-seekers 8 August 2000  Rhododendron Vol. VI No III. July-August. www.chro.org  In a meeting with CHRO’s representative on July 18, 2003, Burma Desk Officer at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva made it clear that the Office of UNNCR has no intention to advocate for establishing a presence in the India-Burma border.