Illegal Aliens or Refugees? 100,000 Burmese Chin Christians in India

WASHINGTON – Some 100,000 ethnic Chins from Burma have fled torture and religious persecution in their homeland to take refuge in Mizoram state in eastern India, where they make up an astounding 10 percent of the population – but on paper – they don't exist.

This problem – the Chins' legal non-existence in Mizoram – brought together a panel of humanitarian experts on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the plight of this highly overlooked ethnic group – 90 percent of which is Christian – at a media event for the release of the 134-page report, "Seeking Refuge: The Chin People in Mizoram State, India."

"Partially due to difficulty with access into Chin state in Burma and Mizoram in India, there has been much less focus on the Chin situation than it really warrants," said Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at Interaction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based relief and development organizations.

"This report shines a badly need light on a painful, neglected situation."

The Chin people are from Chin State in western Burma. Since 1988, tens of thousands of Chins have fled to neighboring Mizoram to escape ethnic, political, and religious persecution under the notorious Burmese military regime. There are an estimated 100,000 Chins in Mizoram state. Until January 2011, foreigners were not allowed into the eastern Indian state.

A delegation, that included panel members, traveled to India from April 7 through May 2, 2011, to assess the situation of the Chin people in Mizoram. What they found was a little-reported, long-term, urban refugee problem that included the Chins in India being considered illegal aliens and therefore in constant danger of arrest, fines, and deportation – even though they could face torture and death if returned home.

Because the Chins in Mizoram are undocumented and not recognized as refugees, they cannot obtain legal work and mostly resort to manual labor, farm work, construction work, selling goods in markets, and maid service to earn a living. It is not unusual for them to be underpaid, but they cannot report it to local authorities out of fear of being arrested or deported.

Matthew Wilch, a U.S. human rights lawyer and the lead writer of the report, described the Chins' financial situation in Mizorum as "chronic economic instability." Eviction of Chin families from their rented home is very common.

It is especially hard for Chin children born in Mizoram because they are stateless and their parents often don't have enough money to enroll them in school.

Jenny Yang, director of advocacy and policy for the Refugee and Immigration program at World Relief and a member of the team that visited Mizoram last year, said, "[I]t (the 2011 trip to Mizoram) was also unique in that there was virtually no international presence, no non-government organization. And UNHCR didn't have a presence at all, which meant that the protection challenges and humanitarian challenges that the refugees face was that much more urgent because they have no international body providing protection for this group of people."

Yang recalled that during the trip to Mizoram, she met a woman who was crying while recalling her plight. The Chin woman shared to Yang that Burmese military officials had detained and tortured her 18-year-old brother out of suspicion that he was a pro-democracy activist. After two weeks of being tortured in jail, her brother died. His body was released to her parents and it was after this that the Burmese military realized that her brother was not a pro-democracy activist but only a student.

The woman said that her other brother was also tortured in jail, and his left hand was cut off. With only one hand left, her brother fled to Mizoram to escape being detained again. Back in Chin State, the woman was a teacher and had two children. But one day she reported to authorities that one of her 14-year-old students was raped by two Burmese soldiers. While at the market that week, the woman's friends informed her that Burmese authorities were at her home. Upon hearing that, she fled to Mizoram, where she lives with her handicapped brother and her parents.

"There is no assistance program or protection for them whatsoever in Mizoram," Yang stressed. "Even as these refugees are fleeing persecution in Burma, they flee to India where there is no protection for them at all, and the fear they have is perpetual – not just in Burma but in India as well.

"Without the legal status of a lot of these refugees, without some sort of documentation, what we found is that this lack of protection has affected literally every single aspect of their lives: their livelihood, their access to healthcare, their access to education, and literally every aspect of their lives. They live not only in fear, but on the margins of a society because they are not recognized as refugee in Mizoram state."

The panel recommendation includes that the central government of India maintain the lifting of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) so that humanitarian organizations, governments and individuals can travel to Mizoram state to meet with those affected by the Chin refugee problem and find a solution.

It also recommends the Indian government and UNHCR establish and maintain refugee protection for Chins in partnership with the international community, and for the Indian government to provide Chins with legal status and access to legal and court protections so they will be freed from the threat of arrest and deportation.

Another recommendation is for the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and other countries and the European Union to partner with the central government of India and Mizoram to provide refugee protection and assistance to Chins.

India's Mizoram state is overwhelmingly Christian, with 95 percent of the 1 million population being followers of Jesus.

"I cannot overstate the importance of the Christian community and church in Mizoram state," noted Jenny Yang. "The influence of the church, whether it is the Presbyterian church, the Baptist church, or the Catholic church especially, is critical and they will continue to be critical in providing any kind of assistance to refugees in the future."

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