Chin Refugee Committee Delhi

Advocacy and help for Chin refugees in Delhi

Without Identity: The Invisible Burmese Refugees of Delhi

Posted by crcnewdelhi on October 6, 2011

Written by Anurag Kumar  (Source:  dinews)

“There is no certainty in my life. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do,” says Somte, one of the Burmese refugees living in India’s second largest city. She has lived here for over four years. Somte’s broken, feeble voice communicates her loss and helplessness. It is pitiful yet her resolve is endearing.

The plight of Burmese refugees like Somte is not well known in Delhi, despite there being more than 10,000 of them in the city. The voices of these refugees, unlike their Tibetan counterparts, are not audible to the rest of the Indian population.

There is a complex explanation for the Burmese presence in Delhi. Achan Mungleng is a social anthropologist who has worked extensively with Burmese community. “The ethnic minorities in Burma have been subjugated by the Burmese majority, which constitutes roughly 60% of its population,” she says, explaining that tensions emerged within Burma after a military coup in 1962. “Then there was an uprising against the military junta in 1988 to put an end to the atrocities inflicted upon the minorities and restore democracy to the land.”

The 1988 uprising failed, which led to brutal reprisals by the junta. “This has led to further curtailments of freedom, more human rights violations, burgeoned violence, many killings and political arrests of the ethnic minorities,” Mungleng says. “The only way for the minorities to survive was to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.”

As a relatively stable next-door neighbour, India was regarded as a premier host for Burmese refugees. “The Indian state of Mizoram shares a border with the ethnic Chin state in Burma,” explains Mungleng. “Through this border, the refugees entered Mizoram.” With the tensions in Burma on-going, many of the refugees have tried to make new lives in India.

Ravi Nair, a lawyer-activist working with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center, has provided legal representation and counsel to Burmese refugees in India. He explains that India was not always the consummate host for Burmese refugees.

“The Indian government ordered the closing of the refugee camps starting in 1988 in north-eastern India. These refugees lost whatever was left of their identity,” explains Nair. “They had no way to seek recognition and affirm their very existence. Indeed, the only way for the refugees to acquire legal status was to travel hundreds of kilometres to the capital city of Delhi and apply for refugee certification from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” Needless to say, this was not a viable option for most of the refugees.

“Travelling to Delhi in itself is a monumental task and only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 Burmese refugees living in Mizoram can make that journey,” says Plato, an official from the international Chin Human Rights Organization. He heads the organization`s operations in West Delhi.

“The sad part is that even those who make it to Delhi have to continually fight for their existence.” For a refugee, a new home brings some opportunities but also a whole new set of challenges.

The legal complications are only a part of the problem for the refugees, explains Plato. “Living in a downtrodden and conservative part of Delhi, they face severe social backlash and security concerns.” This is compounded by their economic disabilities and ghastly living conditions, all of which threaten their very survival.

Kyawkyaw, a Burmese refugee in Delhi, says that there are many obstacles to becoming a legitimate refugee. “The refugee certification has been a great challenge for me. Without it I have no proof of existence. The process of certification is long and tedious. We have to pay bribes to Indian officials for verification. It can take up to three years to get certified.”

To date, by a rough estimate only half of the Burmese refugees in Delhi carry a certificate. The rest are still fighting for their identity. Then there are those who have been rejected by the refugee certification officials.

Nayana Bose, an UNHCR official explains the certification procedure: “The refugees upon reaching Delhi have to apply for refugee certification. They’re then given an application for an interview. Due to the large numbers of Burmese refugees entering Delhi, there is an inevitable delay. If they present a consistent story, they’re given the certification after the requisite verifications.”

“If a refugee is rejected once, they can apply again. Most of the applicants, however, are given refugee certification by the UNHCR.” The refugees can apply only twice, and if they fail the second time then they will never be eligible for certification. For many refugees, the certification is not only their sole proof of identity but also the only means for their survival.

Since the Indian government is not a signatory to the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol on refugees vetted at the United Nations, there is no federal policy on such displaced people. Thus, the UNHCR is the sole agency in India that takes responsibility for their welfare. This presents a grave problem: on the one hand, the UNHCR`s programs are oversubscribed and have inevitable delays; on the other hand, there is a certain dance that the agency must do with local government officials and authorities in order to maintain a presence in India.

Bose clarifies that the refugee certification issued by the UNHCR entitles a Burmese individual to basic services like education, health, and employment. The refugees receive these services through the UNHCR`s implementation partners. Bose seems confident in the quality of service delivered by her agency to people in need.

But the refugees have another story to tell. They are disgusted with the UNHCR, since even after being certified they continue to live in dismal conditions. Especially appalled are the Burmese refugees who have been rejected or are currently in the process of attaining certification. What is striking is the unacceptable living conditions of even those who do attain this certification.

Elaborating on their situation, Lal Thang Liana, a Burmese refugee who has lived in Delhi for five years, says, “We can’t send our kids to a government school. They don’t know Hindi, the local language. The UNHCR education program is of little use. We can’t go to hospitals because we don’t know Hindi. The free government hospitals don’t take us seriously if we go without a translator. And the private hospitals, we just can’t afford them.” According to Liana, the UNHCR has not been commendable with regards to the provision of adequate health care.

Walking through the refugee communities and discussing the difficulties of daily life with these Burmese residents of Delhi, one can sense their despair and helplessness. There is an entire generation of children being raised by these refugees who will never get any education, and who will in all likelihood never see their homeland.

As I visit their houses – which are actually rented rooms – I wonder how 12 people can share a room that is only 10 feet by 8 feet.

Noticing my shock at their living conditions, the refugee named Somte says, “The locals know our desperation to find a room. They’re also skeptical about letting us stay. We come from a different culture. So, they charge us a lot above the actual rent of the room.”

Somte goes on to add that not all locals are the same, but the majority have a prejudice against the refugees. More than two-thirds of the Burmese refugee population in Delhi is unemployed. Owing to the lack of a work permit, the rest are relegated to the informal sector where they are underpaid, overworked and in some cases abused as well.

In addition to all these socio-economic problems, the Burmese refugees must grapple with security concerns. The Burmese community shares residences with the lower strata of Indian society. These local laborers regard the Burmese workers as low-cost economic migrants and not political refugees. Frequent cases of violence and sexual abuse crop up against the refugees by the local population.

On the topic of violence and safety, a refugee who wants to remain anonymous says, “The police don’t help us with our complaints, since we’re not Indian citizens we’ve no power to ask them to do so.”

If these Burmese refugees are ever to become established in Indian cities like Delhi, they must integrate and associate. But this is impossible when the refugees have not even been able to secure basic services like adequate housing, primary healthcare, and education. The locals, furthermore, have undoubtedly perpetuated fear.

The Burmese refugees also openly acknowledge that they make no effort on their part to mingle with the locals. It is not clear whether this fear is of retribution or double-sided prejudice.

What is obvious is that the Burmese refugees I met and interviewed do not want to make Delhi or any other Indian city their permanent home. They see this as a transitional phase and aspire to migrate to Europe or Australia through “third country resettlement” programs offered by the UNHCR.

But this may be a pipedream: many more refugees arrive in Delhi each year than are resettled and the political situation in Burma shows no signs of change. It appears that the Burmese refugees will be in Delhi for many years to come. If they are to escape the squalor and indignity of their current situation, they must consider making Delhi a long-term home and start building new lives in the city. They must be allowed to find their identity here, and local Indians must accept their presence.

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