Chin Refugees: in dubious asylum

Among the thousands of migrants from across India living in Delhi is a small community of Chin refugees from Myanmar. There are some 4,000 Chin refugees in Delhi. For many, the only income is small monthly handouts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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Arun Kumar | February 24, 2018


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Off a naala running along Pankha Road in west Delhi is Chanakya Place, a rabbit warren of lanes so tight that buildings lie in each others’ shadows, and doors and windows open straight on to neighbours’. Among the thousands of  migrants from across India living there is a small community of Chin refugees from Myanmar. There are some 4,000 Chin refugees in Delhi, and most of them live in small rented houses in these lanes. For many, the only income is small monthly handouts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Having fled a military junta’s atrocities in Myanmar, they now long to flee the poor living conditions and lack of acceptability and opportunity in India.
Two maps of Myanmar hang in a corner of Dimhoi’s tin-roofed room. But she dreams of being in Australia. Between the maps is a photograph of a middle-aged woman, who Dimhoi says helped her when she arrived in Delhi. The woman has made it to Australia. Dimhoi lives in the hope of reaching Australia. Or maybe, Canada or the US.
Robbed of property by the military government of Myanmar, she and her husband were press-ganged into carrying weapons from village to village for soldiers. One day, they got on a car that would take them to Aizawl, in Mizoram. During the escape, she was separated from her husband. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” she says. <br><br>
It’s more than ten years since she came to India. She sews bedsheets, quilts and clothes to earn around Rs.2,000, which pays the rent. That may not be for long, for she says her eyesight is failing. The Chin refugee church helps out with rations, and so do fellow refugees. “I’m not happy here,” she says. “I can’t go back to my country. There’s nothing left there. I’m stuck here.”

As a student agitator against the military government, Cung Dawt escaped arrest in 2007 because he was at his friend’s house when the police came looking for him. The next year, he says, he somehow made it to India, and enrolled for a Bible studies course in Bengaluru. “I used to be a BSc student in the second year in Myanmar, but as a refugee, there were issues that forced me to switch courses.” After finishing the course, he came to Delhi and began working for the Chin refugee committee. “Since my student days, I’ve worked for the cause of my community, so I started doing so here in Delhi too.” <br><br>
Is he happy? “I wouldn’t say I’m unhappy. I can live my whole life like this,” he says. “But I don’t see a future for my two-year-old son here. I want to go to some other country. There is no freedom or hope in India. We are more welcomed by the governments outside India. We can get citizenship and rights there. Here, we can’t apply for government jobs. The informal sector, where salaries are low, is our only hope.”

Tshachin’s cafe is decorated with balloons from a recent party. She offers Chin cuisine, and other refugees form the bulk of her clientele. Locals step in too, but only for tea or coffee. When she came here nine years ago, she cooked and sold her dishes from home. Opening the eatery was not a problem. “No,” she says, the authorities did not trouble her. Are people friendly and welcoming? “No.”<br><br>
“It’s a strange country. We don’t feel safe here. When we roam around, people often stare at us and make us feel unwanted,” she says. “People are not warm to us.” With her family, she has applied to emigrate to Australia. Will she be welcomed there? “Yes,” she says. Firmly.

Pian Mawi started calling himself Gabriel so that his name would come easy to the tongues of locals. “But you can call me Mama,” he says. It’s another name he goes by. At a school for Chin refugees that looks more like a house, he teaches children political science. There are seven other teachers. The school is affiliated to the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and admits Chin students of 10-18 years. Education is a small bulwark of hope. So Pian Mawi and the other teachers labour to keep the school going. Two worries weigh on the mind of Ngun Sui Tinz, a widow: her 19-year-old daughter, who is away in Bhopal, studying theology, and her own serious liver condition, for which an immediate transplant is required. Living on the Rs.3,000 monthly that the UNHCR provides, she cannot even dream of paying the Rs.40 lakh the procedure will cost at a private hospital. Government hospitals will not perform the transplant on her, for she’s a refugee. Her daughter, too, requires some surgery, she says, but they can’t think of it now. “We are looked down upon as foreigners. There’s no happiness,” she says. “If we go back, we have no home or land there.”

Text by: Ridhima Kumar


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