The Smile of the ‘Other’: Chin Refugees in India

The image of a ‘refugee’ has been created and nurtured for years as the complicated ‘other’. The presence of refugee communities is often seen as an assault on the already limited resources and opportunities available for livelihoods and survival. Border communities are often the first to encounter such mass influxes from across the frontier, with their everyday lives being affected by the contested existence of stateless people, whose ambiguous identity is constantly questioned. Violence, trauma, loss of loved ones and total displacement fills the entire canvas of their lives. Survival, peace and dignity are their primary concerns; basic rights which should be applicable and available to all.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has named statelessness as a human rights issue and has also reaffirmed that the right to nationality of every person is a fundamental human right. Yet we still find that the UNHCR has recorded 12 million stateless people in the world. Thousands of Chins from Myanmar (since 1988) have settled in Mizoram (Northeastern state in India) and have moved further inwards into the national capital of New Delhi. The 2011 report titled ‘Seeking Refuge-The Chin People in Mizoram State, India’ discusses the physical and gender based violence that the Chins have faced in their home state. They have had to face forced conscription into the Burmese army along with imposition of forced labour (used to build roads, clear land mines, etc). They also have faced religious persecution as they are a Christian minority in a majoritarian Buddhist country. The 2011 report titled ‘Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity in Burma’s Chin State’ by the Physicians for Human Rights has further observed that the Chin state has itself suffered from food insecurity and has recorded a reduction in food crops but an increase in jatropha cultivation. In 2006, Mautam/famine further destroyed over 80% of the farmland in some regions and made 20% of the population food insecure. In July 2008, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) stated that more than 700 people had fled to Mizoram because of lack of food in the state. The Chins have faced discrimination in Myanmar while getting government jobs and salaries along with poor education and health facilities.

Within India too, their journey has not been without hiccups. Although the Mizos and the Chins share historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties, their relationship has swayed like a ship in a storm. The common linkages have been overtaken by more pragmatic considerations of control over local trade and economy, influence and power over local society, etc. Some Mizos feel troubled by the entry of cheap manufactured goods from across the borders along with the ‘outsiders’ capturing the local Aizawl ‘Bazaars’ (markets in the state capital). They are also uncomfortable with the entry of narcotics and alcohol into their Mizo society and sometimes hold the Chins responsible for perceived social degradation. Quit notices have been served by the YMA (Young Mizo Association) and even at times by village councils in the state. These notices have been addressed to not only the Chins but to even non-Mizos from Bengal, Assam (outsiders known as vai) repeatedly for several years, thus creating fear and xenophobia (as observed by scholar N.William Singh). The Chins in Mizoram remain in a ‘protracted urban refugee situation’ and are a floating population, thereby making it hard to distinguish between an economic migrant and a refugee.

India has a history of welcoming refugees and the country is largely hospitable when it comes to providing shelter to them. However, the Chins do face challenges in housing (landlords frequently ask for increase in rents, which forces them to move their residence), health (many suffer from chronic illnesses including malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and depression) and women face harassment and sexual violence (often choosing not to speak of rape). Female headed households are often troubled more. Most of them work in the informal sector where wages are low with Chin women earning less than the men. Water and sanitation facilities continue to be poor. Last year, on the 20th of June, more than 100 Chin refugees camped in front of the UNHCR office in New Delhi, asking for legal protection and basic re-settlement rights. From mid 2006, the UNHCR began a process of resettling the Chins in a third country. It also provides support through its implementing partners like the Don Bosco Ashalayam and SLIC (Socio-Legal Information Centre) with the former running a youth study centre for Basic English and Computer Classes, counseling centers, health camps, and providing interpreters in hospitals and the latter providing legal help.

The Chin Refugee Committee along with the Delhi Chin Community Fellowship have ensured access to medical care and communicated with the police while reporting cases of violence. Many a times, people do not file formal cases of assault as they lack finances and language skills. The Women’s Protection Centre (which started in 2005) opened their doors in 2009 to female asylum seekers from Myanmar. They follow a strict policy of confidentiality, thus encouraging women to share their problems without being judged. They also provide counseling and help in identifying the most vulnerable and those in need of resettlement. Women have learnt capacity skills and have bravely turned their disadvantaged condition into an opportunity for activism and social-connectedness (thus, the presence of active Burmese Women’s Groups). The Burmese Church in Delhi also helps in giving out short term monetary assistance and the Burmese Clinic helps in conducting routine health checkups and treats minor ailments. The UNHCR conducts a Vulnerability Determination and Best Interests Assessments (for unaccompanied minors) before the registration interview. Asylum seekers are provided under-consideration certificates and recognized refugees receive micro-chipped identity cards which are important for seeking employment and for finding accommodation.

Stress is also laid on the spirit of integration and co-existence which is reinforced in the training of refugee community workers and community service providers. Emphasis is laid on good neighbourhood relations with the UNHCR encouraging the youth to be community interlocutors. Youth clubs in Delhi discuss issues ranging from forced marriages and violent displacement to alcoholism and child labour. The role of Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), Panchayats (democratic grass root institutions in India), local police, child welfare boards, and others are all crucial. The SLIC (which consists of both lawyers and social workers) is also trying to sensitize the women police officers at each sub-station (police chowki) in the city so that they are better equipped to handle cases of exclusion of the ‘other’. The police in turn encourage refugee communities to participate in neighbourhood initiatives as ‘fellow residents’. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in India has asked for a national law on refugees or to amend the outdated Foreigners Act (1946). The Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Protection) Bill 2006 still requires debate in Parliament but it could make a difference in the future. It seeks to create a Commissioner of Refugees, Refugee Appellate Board, interim legal protection, dignified rehabilitation, and other important protections.

Increasingly porous borders and trans-national challenges raise questions of belonging and citizenship. Gayatri Spivak raises the aspect of ‘paradoxical subject privileging’ whereby those who ‘act and speak’ are silencing those who ‘act and struggle’. The refugees continue to fight for recognition and representation. There is probably the need to revisit the Kantian notion of ‘cosmopolitan right’; right based on the common humanity of each and every person (and his/her freedom) which transcends cultural, religious and ethno-centric barriers. Often refugees are victims of cross-border smuggling gangs who take full advantage of their ‘stateless’ condition and strip them of whatever meager possessions they have.

One’s identity is inherently linked to the existence of the ‘other’. It’s only in the presence of the other that one can evolve and prosper. Thus relationships need to be based on mutual trust and solidarity. Genuine concern for people who are less privileged but more profoundly affected will truly open the doors for a ‘humanitarian gateway’, binding people through ties of friendship and feelings of empathy. A nation cannot crumble by simply allowing a ‘mosaic of cultures’ to flourish. Some immediate steps can be taken like better safeguarding of minority rights by Myanmar’s Constitution and current government, streamlining the process through which the Chins get refugee status and future citizenship in India, supporting and strengthening organizations which work with the Chins in India with special focus on the vulnerable and finally, encouraging more socio-cultural interaction between communities on a daily basis for durable integration and harmony.


Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).