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World Refugee Day: For Myanmar's refugees, India a bleak house, not home

Nachiket Tekawade | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST
The communities
  • Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship of Myanmar since 1982
  • The Chin community has been targeted with multiple human rights violations
The situation
  • Rohingya and Chin registered refugees in India officially number 16,341, according to the UNHCR
  • While they have higher hopes of survival in India, their existence is pretty much hand-to-mouth
More in the story
  • On World Refugee Day, meet some of these refugees and see their plight
  • What the UNHCR thinks about a final solution

Persecuted in their own country, members of the Rohingya and Chin communities have fled Myanmar over the course of many years. They came to India looking for a better life.

According to data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), out of 28,000 refugees registered with it in India, around 16,341 registered refugees are from Myanmar (May 2016). This does not include those who have not been granted refugee status by the UNHCR.

However, it's not as though the communities have been accepted in India either. On the occasion of World Refugee Day, Catch explores their journey, their lives and their dreams.

Rohingyas - not even allowed Burmese citizenship

A stone's throw away from Delhi's Jamia Nagar lie a few rows of small shabby huts, covered with tarpaulins and fishing nets in an otherwise empty plot of land. This is the Shram Vihar refugee camp, home to over 70 families belonging to the Rohingya Muslim community.

Mahmud Usman, 35, sits in his makeshift office outside the dark room that he calls home. He lives with his wife and three kids, and speaks in broken Hindi, which he has acquired over the last few years living in India.

Usman fled Myanmar around 2010. He hails from the Rakhine State in Myanmar, where the Rohingyas form a majority. It is also the state worst affected by violence between Buddhists and Rohingyas.

Buddhists don't consider Rohingyas to originate from Myanmar. There have been allegations of state sponsored genocide against Rohingyas since the independence of Burma. Since the Burmese Nationality Act came into effect in 1982, the Rohingyas have been denied Burmese citizenship.

Since the Burmese Nationality Act came into effect in 1982, Rohingyas have been denied citizenship

The 2012 Rakhine State riots were the final straw, which led to mass migrations of Rohingyas to neighbouring countries like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

The refugees who come to India, like Usman did, usually come through Bangladesh. They first have to travel through the river between Rakhine State and Bangladesh, and Usman says the journey is dangerous, with dense, hilly forests and treacherous waters in the way.

"Some drown, some die of hunger," Usman says.

Usman travelled to the Indian border with his family, where a few bribes and a porous border got them to Kolkata. It was in Delhi that they got a refugee card from the UNHCR.

Muhammad Usman holds refugee card issued by UNHCR. (Sehar Qazi/Catch News)

But the refugee colony hasn't exactly been a home away from home. The colony is situated next to a nullah, which makes its ihabitants prone to diseases. It is also heavily infested by snakes.

According to Mohammed Sirajullah, most of the people in the colony are employed in informal sector jobs, like working at construction sites or brick kilns. There, they manage to earn Rs 300 per day.

But daily wages aren't guaranteed. This means families like Usman's hardly get a few days of work each month, earning between Rs 1,000-4,000. They live hand-to-mouth sometimes, struggling for basic food.

Even this piece of land won't be their home for long. The owner of this land wants it back. The refugees who have lived there for the last two to three years will again be on the move from next month.

"We cannot complain. We are thankful to him for having let us live here. But where will we go now?" asks Usman.

Myanmar isn't an option. Usman's wife, who has been a witness to a rapes by the army says: "I could have been next. We came here to save our lives. But even in this place, it is becoming difficult to live. We are helpless."

Even the piece of land in Shram Vihar won't be their home for long. The owner wants it back

Neza Muddin, chairman of the Rohingya Refugee Committee (RRC), who used to work with the UNHCR in Myanmar, fled the country after the army started arresting senior UNHCR staff from the Rohingya community. Now in India, he isn't very happy.

"There are no facilities. The UNHCR card is all we have. The subsistence allowance was stopped for many of them," he says.

He wants members of the community to either be sent back to Myanmar or be resettled in another country.

Neza Muddin hopes the Indian government will talk to Myanmar about his community's condition, but says it is a distant dream. "It would be nice to be home," he says.

A Rohingya Muslim woman with her children. (Sehar Qazi/Catch News)
United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has issued identity cards to the Rohingyas. (Sehar Qazi/Catch News)

Chins - victims of racial and sexual abuse

In Uttam Nagar, a few minutes away from Neza Muddin's office in Vikas Puri, stays another refugee community which fled persecution in Myanmar.

The Chin community has been staying here for a longer time. There are around 5,000 members of this community living in Delhi.

Biak Tha Hmun, chairman of the Chin Refugee Committee was forcefully recruited by the army when he was 15, and given the job of a porter. He had to carry weapons and ammunition for the soldiers. "There was an accident on a road one day. From there I fled," he recounts.

Cung Dawt of the Chin Human Rights Organisation says that things have improved since 2013, but he can never be sure of the realities on the ground.

Just like the Rohingyas, the Chins do not see a better future here in India.

The UNHCR has supported them in accessing government facilities like education, healthcare and vocational training for jobs. But being refugees, they face many problems like workplace exploitation, harassment by landlords and social discrimination. According to Cung Dawt, there have been over hundred cases of sexual, verbal and physical abuse.

Cung Dawt of the Chin Human Rights Organisation says there have been over a hundred cases of abuse

Nukhai and her husband run a small food joint in Chanakya Place, near Janakpuri. They complain of unending racial discrimination and abuse they face every day.

When their daughter was in Class VIII, she was sexually harassed by a juvenile school mate. When Nukhai complained to the school authorities, they told her to remove her daughter from school if she was feeling unsafe.

Their daughter, who found school a harrowing experience, managed to pass the ninth grade and finally quit, because the incidents didn't stop.

Their son is bullied regularly for his facial features. Some days he returns home with his shirt torn. His schoolmates chase him away with cries of "Nepali bhaag".

Nukhai and her husband also face troubles running the food joint related to official documents.

Another member of the community, Maunghta, suffered severe damage to his brain when a soldier back in Myanmar hit him with his rifle for not being able to produce enough bamboo that year. In India, it has become more difficult for him.

"I have to get good medication, which is costly. Government hospitals do not offer good services," he claims.

Nukhia and James holding their UNHCR cards. (Sehar Qazi/Catch News)
One of the families belonging to the Chin refugee community living in Uttam Nagar. (Sehar Qazi/Catch News)

No final solution?

Shuchita Mehta, spokesperson for UNHCR India says, "the subsistence allowance paid by UNHCR is time-bound and limited, and is offered to the most vulnerable of the refugees,".

The UNHCR has been working with NGO partners like BOSCO, SLIC, ACCESS, etc., to make sure that the refugees have access to basic education, health facilities, vocational training and human rights.

According to Mehta, options for long-term solutions include voluntary repatriation of refugees who wish to return to their country in safety and dignity, or, where possible, the local integration of refugees who wish to remain in India and qualify for Indian citizenship under national laws.

In addition, the UNHCR submits very few refugees with particularly compelling protection needs for resettlement to a third country.

That there are 16,341 refugees from Myanmar alone proves that the crisis is here to stay. "Among the 20 million refugees, less than 1% get resettled," says Mehta.

Diplomatically speaking, India is known to handle refugees by carefully weighing its foreign policy dividends. In the case of Myanmar, even if the Rohingyas and Chins are nobody's people, India should give them a safe home purely on the grounds of social justice.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

First published: 20 June 2016, 5:58 IST