26 August 2016: There are hundreds of thousands of Chin refugees still stranded in India after having fled their native places in Burma. Although the new government led by the National League for Democracy has taken office, refugees in India are still worried about returning home.
Salai Cung Dawt, field officer in charge of the Delhi office of the Chin Human Rights Organization, talks about the current situation and challenges facing Chin refugees in Delhi.
Question: Currently, how many Chin refugees are there in Delhi?
Salai Cung Dawt: According to the UNHCR’s statistics in 2015, there are 6,216 refugees from Burma and the majority is of Chin ethnicity from Burma. It is believed that there are about 4,500 Chin refugees in Delhi, according to Chin communities. Out of this, about sixty percent of the population is women and children.
Question: Refugees from Burma in Malaysia are now returning with the help of both governments. Why don’t they go back to Chin State or home in Burma as the country is opening up now?
Salai Cung Dawt: Some leaders say that the government of Burma should issue an official, not verbal, letter inviting refugees to go home and make sure refugees will be taken care of when they actually return home. Refugees stranded in India are worried about their livelihoods if they go back to Burma as they no longer have their houses and land. They are also worried about how to resettle and re-start their new lives if there is no guarantee that the government will help them. Another reason is about their children who are studying at Indian schools. They are worried about their children’s education as they study in Indian, not in Burmese. The other challenges are the cost of travel expenses to go back home and that of resettlement in their own country. At the same time, they are wondering if the UN or the government of Burma will provide necessary assistance and security.
Question: There are many issues facing the Chin refugee community in Delhi. Currently, what are the most challenging ones?
Salai Cung Dawt: Yes, there are many. The first issue is employment. Refugees can only work at private sectors. In general, each worker can earn between 4,500 rupees and 5,000 rupees. But their rent is much higher than their wages. Those aged over 50 cannot get a job. Refugee workers face various forms discrimination at work. Refugee workers are forced to work longer hours, sometimes without rest, but payments of wages are often delayed while some workers do not get paid at all.
The second will be issues related to health. Malnutrition or lack of nutritious food is ascribed to the main causes of illness Chin refugees contract. Those registered as refugees with the UNHCR can get financial support only if they go to a government hospital. The problem is that when they actually go to the hospital, they cannot get proper treatment and are discriminated by medical doctors and local patients on the grounds that they are from Burma.
The third problem is renting. There is no rental agreement between the house-owner and the refugee family. What usually happens to the tenants, refugees, is that the house-owner takes advantage and raises the rental at any time he or she wants. He or she would also charge utility bills much higher than the actual amount that they have used. We are several cases where refugee tenants are forced to leave their flats or evicted without prior notice or reasons.
Other issues include education for children. The majority of refugee children drop out of government schools mainly because of discrimination inflicted upon them by local students and teachers, and expensive costs of school textbooks which are supposed to be given free of charge. Some children drop out of schools because they have to work to help parents earn a living in the Indian capital.
Question: How does the UN respond to these issues?
Salai Cung Dawt: We can say that the UN staff members are not working wholeheartedly to help refugees. According to complaints by refugees, the UNHCR does not act on time and usually takes so long to respond to serious issues. This has made the situation more difficult for refugees to approach the UN agencies. Instead, they would go to meet with community. Overall, they, including community leaders, are not happy with the UNCHR and its partners.
Question: So, what does the refugee community do?
Salai Cung Dawt: There are several Chin refugee committees formed by different groups. However, there is one main committee, Chin Refugee Committee, that serves as an umbrella body representing the whole refugee community in Delhi. Its duties include documenting and reporting cases of refugees to the UN agencies, and providing social services to member refugees. Its members meet with the UN staff members on behalf of the Chin community. When refugees did not receive responses from the UN as much as expected, they started developing doubt and misunderstanding of the committee, hence forming a separate committee in an attempt to approach the UN agencies on their own. This has further created misunderstanding and competition among the Chin refugee communities. So, Chin refugees are currently confused and in difficult situation.
Question: Have you ever approached the Burmese Embassy based in Delhi?
Salai Cung Dawt: As far as I know, we have never approached the embassy. They have never met with us, let alone offering help. Last time during the Thein Sein’s administration, we went to the embassy to give our documents regarding the new religious protection law passed in Burma. Instead of giving us a certain kind of reception, the embassy, after having invited Indian police, threatened to arrest us. We said: “We are not protesters but are here to give the documents to you. Finally, they accepted our letters and told us to go. It was obvious that we were not welcome.”
Question: Do you think the embassy should be approached now as it is under the new government led by the National League of Democracy?
Salai Cung Dawt: We hope that they will be more receptive. But we are not sure how much the new government of Burma has changed their policies at the embassy, especially regarding issues related to refugees. If they are for the people, they don’t have to wait for our communication as they know that we are stranded here facing various difficulty. They can come and make a visit to us, citizens of Burma. #