New Delhi: Even as the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is unrolling the process of collecting biometric data of the Myanmar refugees in the border states of Mizoram and Manipur, the Myanmarese government in exile says it is “extremely concerned” about the move.
“Nobody wants to leave one’s country; these refugees are forced to enter these Indian border states because of fear for their lives. When the situation is normal, they would like to return home. Since they have run away from their own country for their safety, we are extremely concerned that their biometrics are being collected in their place of refuge for safety,” said a senior official of the National Unity Government (NUG)’s foreign affairs cell.
While refugees from various countries have been staying in India for decades, this is the first time that the Indian government has decided to collect biometric data from such people. The MHA asked the states to complete this exercise by September 15.
While as per the Manipur government’s data in April, there are 2,480 Myanmar refugees in some hill districts of the state, this past July 25, news reports quoting Assam Rifles sources said 718 more refugees had entered a particular hill district that shares a border with that country on a single day.
In Mizoram, there are over 35,000 refugees – of whom around 20,000 have taken shelter in relief camps across different districts. The rest are either staying with relatives or on rented accommodation in the state capital Aizawl. The Wire has earlier reported that among those staying on rent in Aizawl are several NUG MPs who have fled the wrath of the military Junta that dismissed the Aung San Suu Kyi government in February 2021 in a coup and took control of the country’s reins. These high-profile political refugees are being guarded by the Assam Rifles, which monitors the border with Myanmar.
Asked if the NUG government was also concerned about the safety of these parliamentarians, the foreign cell officer told The Wire, “As of now, they are safe. But we are not quite up to date about what is happening in Mizoram on a daily basis.”
The Wire has learnt from David Lalthangliana, the nodal officer in charge of the biometric data collection of the refugees at the Chief Secretary’s office in Mizoram, that biometrics of the NUG MPs would also be collected. “Yes, the MPs’ biometric data would also be collected. But we would clearly not be able to meet the deadline of September 15 set by the MHA,” said Lalthangliana, who is the joint secretary and officer on special duty to the state chief secretary. He said, “We have already conveyed our inability to meet the deadline to the MHA as the state goes to polls at the end of the year and government employees also have that pressure to deal with. Next week, a team of the Election Commission is reaching Mizoram with regard to the elections.”
On June 22, the MHA asked Mizoram and Manipur to complete the biometric exercise by September 15. Then, officials from the ministry visited both the northeastern states to train local officials. “After the district officials were trained, they, in turn, trained the lower officials. We, thereafter, rolled out a pilot project in Lunglei district in the last week of July. On successful completion of the pilot, we have begun the process in all districts since Myanmar refugees are spread across all the districts of the state,” said Lalthangliana.
Asked about the NUG government’s fear about a possible breach of privacy and collection of sensitive data, the nodal officer said, “These are not meant for the public domain. Essentially, we are collecting the data for the ministry. Full confidentiality of the data would be maintained.”
Parallel to Mizoram, in neighbouring Manipur too, the MHA deadline won’t be met. A source in the Manipur home department told this correspondent, “Though we tried meeting the MHA deadline as of now, it doesn’t look possible. There are some refugees in a detention centre at Sajjwa jail on the outskirts of Imphal; their biometrics have been completed; but most of the refugees are in the hill districts. It will be difficult to complete the exercise there because of the ongoing ethnic conflict.”
Since ethnic clashes between the Kukis and the Meiteis broke out in the state on May 3, chief minister N. Biren Singh and several powerful Meitei civil society organisations have been blaming “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar for fomenting the clash. The state’s Kuki community has been accused of harbouring refugees from Myanmar, with the chief minister claiming that they were responsible for deforestation, growing poppy in the state’s hill districts and carrying out cross-border drug trade. As late as early August, the state home department had said that it would meet the September 15 deadline. The chief minister is also the home minister.
However, in an interview with The Hindu on August 24 in New Delhi, Singh categorically said completing the biometric exercise would not completed by September 15.
While Manipur shares a 398 km long border with Myanmar, Mizoram’s border with that country stretches to 510 km.