Burmese refugees: In the middle of nowhere

Safe haven? New Delhi is home to more than 4,500 Chin refugees, many of them women and children

Armed conflict in Burma resulted in the displacement of many of its inhabitants. As a result, many Burmese people (Chin refugees) crossed over to neighbouring India. New Delhi is home to more than 4,500 Chin refugees, with women and children being half of them. These refugees from Burma, who have been in Delhi for years now, are living in appalling conditions with lack of basic medical facilities and job opportunities.

A study by Tehelka on Chin refugees living in Delhi found that persecution due to ethnicity, religion and politics is the main reason for seeking asylum in this country. They think they are protracted refugees, who are in an intractable state of limbo. So, they have accepted the lack of basic rights as a way of life while they are in exile.

Burma is located in Southeast Asia. Chin refugees believe that repression and persecution by successive Burmese regimes since 1962, under Ne Win’s (former president of Burma) dictatorship, continue till date. In the process, Burmese people fled their native place to neighbouring countries such as India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Chin refugees living in Delhi feel they are often subjected to human rights violations such as: Restriction of free movement, sexual and physical violence, police apathy, racism, lack of legal facilities and an identification card (no Indian employers accept the unhcr certificate). These apart, they also face language problems, exorbitant charges from landlord and retailers and low or no payment at work place. Even after fleeing to India, their condition is far from satisfactory.

In Delhi they are living a nightmare. Female refugees revealed that they continue to live in fear due to the harassment of Indian locals. They alleged physical abuse, molestation, sexual assault and rampant discrimination, be it at their rented apartments, workplaces, public spaces or even on the street. Adding to their woes are the difficulty in finding work and complying with the demands of local employers.

A male Chin refugee told Tehelka, “I am Cung Dawt, currently working in Chin Human Rights Organisation as In-charge of Delhi office. I arrived in Delhi in the year 2008 as a refugee. At that time I had no time to pursue my studies further. Mostly, I spent my time at informal factories earning my livelihood. I got married in 2014 to my fellow refugee. I joined the Chin Human Rights Organisation in March 2013.”

Dawt said further, “None of the refugees are happy in Delhi due to the impending fear of sexual violence at the hands of locals. Studying in government institutes was impossible due to the lack of an identity card. Most of the refugees working in the informal sector are earning Rs 3,000-4,000 per month. There is no rent agreement for a refugee and the landlord increases the rent two to three times in a year. Many go to the night bazaar and pick up leftover vegetables of a shop owner to satisfy their hunger.”

He also told us in a melancholic tone, “The Indian government allowed the refugee children to study in government schools. However, they faced lots of discrimination from their Indian classmates, even from the teacher, and as a result the refugee children left the school. We as refugees are unable to utilise the public health, education and legal services. Some women and children don’t report sexual assaults for fear of social stigmatisation. Even those cases that are reported to the local police stations or the unhcr’s implementing partners are not registered, forcing the victims to drop cases in exchange for cash. Even the unhcr’s partners dissuade the victim from registering the case by saying it will take a very long time.”

Ashok Agarwal, a social jurist, said that among the Chin refugees, there are more than 2,000 children in the age group of 0-18 years. Out of these, only 59 are in government schools, 124 in Don Bosco Schools and 184 in community schools. He also reveals that approximately 1,650 children are not attending any kind of school.

Agarwal said, “I had visited community and government schools… everywhere, refugee children are facing various problems. It has also been noticed that many kids of school-going age are engaged in work. Chin families are generally seen giving the excuse of the ‘question of survival’. Undoubtedly, they are economically poor but such kind of excuse is not acceptable. I genuinely feel that as long as Chin refugee children are staying in India, each one of them must be provided with quality education.”

Another female Chin refugee said on the condition of anonymity, “I live in west Delhi with my sister and work in an Indian NGO (Refugee Desk) as a community worker. Living in India is not so easy for refugees as we don’t have any rights over here. There are many youth and children who want to study but can’t afford the same. We have to work to fill our stomach. Even if we get a job, it will be in a small factory, where we earn between Rs 2,500 and 3,000 per month. Some are working as maids. We barely earn our daily need. Once we give our room rent and buy some food, nothing will be left of our salary. As humans, we also want to enjoy some time but the situation in which we are in does not offer that opportunity. Our room rent is usually Rs 2,500-8,000 per month. They are small rooms and we generally share them with other family or friends. Usually, the landlord charges us higher than local people.”

She further added, “Another problem we face is language. As we look different, we face discrimination, physical harassment and sexual abuse. Even though we went to Social-Legal Information Centre (SLIC), and Don Bosco, a partner of the UNHCR, to report our difficulties, they did not really help us. It is like we are not their concern at all, but they still eat our money from the unhcr. They were hired by the UNHCR to help refugees, but when we go there, they are of no help.”

While talking to Tehelka, she got emotional and said, “In future, we want, most importantly, good education like any other Indian. But it won’t happen now… maybe after we die. Living here is a waste of our precious time as we don’t see a good future in India. We are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

She added further, “Many journalists used to ask us many questions. We are also fed up answering the same questions, as we are still struggling and nothing had changed.”

Sources from refugee community claimed that 99 percent of Burmese refugees earn lesser than Delhi’s statutory minimum wage of Rs 8,554. Their average monthly earning is Rs 4,500.

There are more than 30 refugees suffering from Hepatitis B who need help immediately. Most have no other licence to work other than the blue unhcr card, which is why their small businesses are not allowed by corporations. So, for Burmese refugees nothing has changed.



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