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As 50,000 Burmese Refugees Fight For Survival, ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ Only For Full Pockets?

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By Shambhavi Saxena

People have had to flee their home countries for any amount of reasons, from state-sponsored violence, ethnic clashes, to wars, natural disasters and devastating economic conditions. Strong laws are required to address the movement, settlement and safety of such large displaced populations. So in 1951, the Refugee Convention was introduced to define refugees, their rights, and states’ legal obligations to them. In 1967, it was amended by the Protocol on the Status of Refugees. There are 19 states which are signatories to this Convention, and India is not one of them.

world refugee day, burmese refugees

The situation is far from ideal. Without a statute to deal specifically with refugees, we rely on the outdated Citizenship Act (1955) and Foreigners Act (1946) to regulate the entry/stay/exit of non-nationals. ‘Security considerations’ have weakened the case for implementing a refugee law in the country, Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati’s draft bill on the same has been gathering cobwebs since 2002. The Indian tradition of ‘atithi devo bhava‘ – welcoming and treating guests as gods – is obsolete. We only show interest in guests with full pockets. As a result, the 203,383 refugees and asylum-seekers in India are living with few reassurances. According to research conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 110,000 from Tibet; 10,000 ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan; 30,400 Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan; 99,600 from Sri Lanka; 35,000 from Bangladesh; and 50,000 from Myanmar currently in India.

The last of these, Myanmarese (or Burmese) refugees are concentrated in Mizoram and Delhi. Thin Thin Khaing, who participated in the Saffron Revolution and volunteered in health programs organized by the National League for Democracy, had to flee to India in 2008.

world refugee day 3Our government persecuted the ethnic minorities, and crushed every people’s demonstrations for democracy,” she said. “After the 2010 election, we now have quasi civilian government but the power is still in the military’s hand as all the men in power are ex-military men in civilian clothes. Whatever changes the country has made so far can be turned back any minute by the military. The Constitution reserves 25% of seats for the military in the parliament and without their agreement, there can be no amendment to the constitution. Union Solidarity and Development Party- which has been in power since 2010, is backed by the military.

Repatriation under these political circumstances is therefore unlikely for her and many other Burmese, settled in the West Delhi areas of Janak Puri, Vikas Puri and Uttam Nagar. Fleeing was a huge risk, but the only option for survival. The military junta in Myanmar is notorious for its attacks on civilians, from killings to rapes, and several other human rights abuses, despite the Shan State Army-North signing a ceasefire as far back as 1989. But the refugees have gone from the frying pan into the fire. Their stay in India has been riddled with fear, uncertainty, physical and sexual violence, and poverty.

With such few provisions for refugees under Indian law, refugee children’s education takes a hit. “We cannot apply for higher studies in Universities with the UNHCR provided Refugee Certificate and Temporary Residential Permit. Private Universities are believed to be more accommodating in dealing with Burmese refugees but no Burmese refugee is in a position to manage the high fees of these Universities,” said Rosalinn Zahau, who has worked closely with the Chin community in Delhi. Without a proper education, financial security, a confident knowledge of human rights, and respect are hard to come by, if at all. But that’s not even the worst of it.

The New York Times found that “[m]any Chins wait until day’s end to scavenge in the market, competing with dogs for the leftovers of India’s leftovers. Out late at night, they risk muggings and sexual assault.” Additionally, refugee children with no school to go to, or who have dropped out because of bullying, take up late-night scavenging (to avoid the police) become exposed to drug and alcohol abuse.

Thin Thin Khaing explains that, “The biggest problem we face is discrimination in terms of our wages and work timings.” The refugees are paid much lower wages, made to work for longer hours and are made to work harder. “Due to our low wages, many of us have to struggle to even pay our rent on time. The cost of living is getting higher day by day. Surviving is tough.

A language barrier and distinct physical features has made the community easy targets for economic exploitation, and the women targets of rape.

world refugee day 4 burmese refugeeMost refugees cannot afford adequate housing,” said Zahau, who co-authored a report on sexual and gender-based violence. “They have to share single room accommodation. Bathrooms too are shared with many other households in the same building. As a result, many Chin refugee women have been assaulted and molested in their bathrooms by Indian neighbours.

The police often side with the local Indians. They refuse to file FIRs for us. They will not come if we call. Although it is difficult to generalize, our overall experience with the police has been very bad.

The Indian police and courts have failed to address their concerns of safety and violence, but the most troubling matter is the response from the UNHCR’s implementing partners – the Socio-Legal Information Centre (SLIC), and Don Bosco Ashalayam. Thin Thin Khaing is doubtful adequate help will come: “Maybe they have resource and power limitations but we, Burmese refugees, feel they could do better in providing their services. We have raised our concerns with them several times over many years to no avail.

At times like these, intra-community support networks are all they can turn to. “The community best understand its problems,” says Zahau. “Community events help in understanding each other’s point of view and help educate each other about issues and concerns that we should tackle.” Though the refugees’ suspicion of local police and citizens is not unfounded, an excessive dependence on their own community can lead to ghettoization, which is hard to recover from.

Is there a way forward? Implementation of strong refugee law in India is desperately required. Every day that passes without it could mean life and death for someone. While many refugees seek third-country resettlement, which in itself is no walk in the park. The refugees can be best described as the now here nowhere people. Countries are reluctant to accept refugees, which is why Rohingya muslims are stranded in a watery nightmare. In India the incorrect distribution of resources hurts refugees, as below-poverty-line families from Mizoram have been claiming refugee status. A protest demonstration held by Burmese Chin refugees on 19th June called for improving refugee life, urging the UNHCR to address housing, job security, subsistence allowance and health care.

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Way back in 1959, India welcomed the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Today, Tibetan refugees have access to healthcare, education and scholarships, and as of last year, children of Tibetan refugees have been added to the electoral list. Thin Thin Khaing notes that “The Indian government was very supportive of exiles and refugees back in the early 90s, but we now it seems to care more about harbouring good relation with the Burmese government than human rights.

India needs to step up to the plate and remedy the situation not just for Burmese refugees, but for all refugees currently living within our borders. For “freedom is indivisible, and when one (…) is enslaved, all are not free.

Photo Credit: Van Bawi Sung

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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