Life in Limbo for Chin Refugees
Posted by crcnewdelhi on December 1, 2011
Thirty-year-old Biathleng fled Myanmar’s Chin State for Delhi in June, with three children and a teenage wife. “I have an appointment for my refugee card,” he says carefully, when asked about his new life.
Like many other Chins, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minorities, his family walked for two days until they crossed the border into India, he says. They then shared a vehicle from Mizoram to Guwahati, Assam, and caught a train to the Indian capital, fleeing persecution and impoverishment in their heavily militarized homeland.
An estimated 86,000 Chins have come to India since 1988, 10,000 of them to Delhi. The majority arrived in the last five years. For many, including Biathleng and his family, their problems have only grown since his arrival.
A lack of clean drinking water left the family with jaundice, diarrhea and dysentery. Usually ill, they rarely leave their single room (shared by nine, for the equivalent of $38 a month) in a chawl – a building containing several tenements – in Budella, Vikaspuri, the largest of several dusty neighbourhoods in west Delhi that shelter beleaguered Chin refugees. Except for church on Sunday and sometimes a little ethnic community school for the older boy, they avoid going outside because of the pollution. Language is a barrier, as they are not fluent in Hindi or English primarily spoken in the capital. In any case, they feel they must stay home to guard what little they own.
Citizenship is not an option, though when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees issues Biathleng’s card, he will at least be eligible for medical reimbursement and offered U.N.H.C.R. protection from potential deportation. Nearly half the roughly 22,000 refugees and asylum seekers under the U.N.H.C.R.’s mandate in India are from Myanmar, and a large majority of them are Chin.
Why do Chins continue to try to squeeze into the world’s most populous democracy, where hundreds of millions already live below the international poverty line?
Many say they have too much to lose not to leave home. Chin State has been ravaged by military rule since 1962 in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ethnic minorities like the Christian Chins and Kayans, Kachins, Arakan and Mon have suffered extrajudicial killings, forced labor and worse at the hands of “Burmanization” and are finally being driven out by famine, says the Chin Refugee Committee (C.R.C.), a small Delhi-based organization established in 1996 to offer advocacy and help to fellow Chins. India, just over the border, is the closest sanctuary.
An estimated 70 percent of the 500,000 Chins in Chin State live below the poverty line, according to the C.R.C., and they are discriminated against by potential employers as Christians and members of an ethnic minority.
Humanitarian aid has pulled out, the C.R.C. adds, due to restrictions placed on international groups, including United Nations organizations, by the military.
Myanmar’s first civilian president, Thein Sien, who visited Delhi in October to strengthen ties with India, has been pledging liberalization since he was elected in March. The world’s eyes are on his country today, as Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in the decades since the military gained power. Her trip involves fact-finding about reported political reform. But Chins in west Delhi are not convinced the country has changed.
“Until the Constitution is changed, the military can always take over,” says Bonai, a 25-year-old political science student who is president of the C.R.C. “We can’t go back; we demonstrated against the regime, so if we go back we will be arrested.”
Not that things are much better for them here. According to a report released by the C.R.C. last month, only half of Delhi’s Chins are recognized as refugees by the U.N.H.C.R. A mere 20 percent are employed, and, as the report chronicles in 35 case studies, they are vulnerable to ill health, sexual harassment, violence, police indifference and exploitative employers and landlords.
“We are minority people, we are different,” Bonai says. “The police cannot solve this.”
Impoverished Indians are sometimes resentful and begrudge Chins’ basic communal rights, according to Rinengi Varte, an Indian C.R.C. volunteer who hails from Mizoram across the border. When the neighborhood’s water supply arrives, some Chins tell her, they are made to wait until the local Indians have gotten theirs. Rickshaw drivers often assume she, too, is Chin when she visits, and treat her contemptuously as a result, she adds.
Sunita Tyagi, a businesswoman who runs a shop in Budella and rents 20 rooms to Chins, feels the problem is different. “On their own, anyone can be bad or good, I have no problem with the Burmese people, I like many of them,’’ she said. “We cannot always speak to each other, since they don’t speak Hindi, so sometimes there are misunderstandings. And sometimes they drink and pick fights, the young men. In one month, we have had three big fights.”
“Some young people drink out of depression and worry, and perhaps take drugs,” agrees a Chin social worker and former C.R.C. president, Steven Tluang.
Bonai says many Chins work as cleaners in the Janakpuri district center shopping complex or in illegal garment factory or electronic repair jobs, where they receive the equivalent of $28 to $38 a month. Local residents earn 25 to 50 percent more, he says. Yet there are few other options. Biathleng hopes to join his three brothers, who hold low-paying factory jobs, when his health improves. For now, when his child cries out, “I’m hungry!” his face is blank.
Many 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.
“We are aware of the many challenges that refugees, including Chin refugees face,” Montserrat Feixas Vihe, chief of mission for the U.N.H.C.R. in India said. “We are trying to focus on prevention and have an ongoing awareness raising campaign on how to be more careful in a large city like Delhi. In addition, we work with the local police and neighbourhood associations to ensure a more protective environment. ”
India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to several requests for comment.
In Budella and four nearby neighborhoods (Hastsal Village and Jeevan Park in Uttam Nagar, Asalatpur village in Janakpuri and Dabri in Sitapuri), many Chins linger for years, waiting for the chance to attain official refugee status and its modest advantages.
In the meanwhile, the community finds occasional charity in non-governmental organizations and a little help from three U.N.H.C.R.-recognized organizations, but not much more.
The C.R.C., with a small office of 25 volunteers in Janakpuri , is funded by the Euro-Burma Office and offers some support. It sometimes works with Burmese Women Delhi, a crisis center in Budella with a staff of three, dealing with rape, assault and gender discrimination.
Many of the women who run it are victims themselves. One 36-year-old worker says she fled her hometown, Falam, after a soldier raped her. She never saw her children again and her husband married his employer’s daughter, she recounts.
In her previous life, she had a home, two children and a husband; in this one, she has one pink room, a grimy teddy bear and the friendship of fellow exiles who unite in Christian faith. A feeling of anonymity prevails; Chins are often mistaken here for Nepalis or northeastern Indians. “We are here, but no one knows,’’ she says. “We want people to know.”
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