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.
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 Without a statute to deal specifically with refugees, we rely on the outdated Citizenship Act (1955) and Foreigners Act (1946) to regulate the entry/stay/exit of non-nationals.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 The Indian tradition of ‘atithi devo bhava‘ – welcoming and treating guests as gods – is obsolete.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.
“Our 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.
“Most 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.
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