UNHCR to Cancel Refugee Status of Chins of Myanmar

While the agency has said that the situation in the Chin State of Myanmar has become 'stable and secure', refugees in India disagree.

New Delhi: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has decided to lift the refugee status over the Chins of Myanmar from August 1, 2018.

Stating that the “cessation process” of the refugee status of the Chins would be completed by December 31, 2019, the UN refugee agency has said that the situation in the Chin State of Myanmar has become “stable and secure” for them to return home and, therefore, they don’t need “international protection”.

The exact number of Chins residing in India is contested. While there are about 4,000 Chin refugees are registered with the UNHCR office in New Delhi and have been issued refugee cards, many are residing in the national capital without any UNHCR assistance. Most Chins stay in the West Delhi colonies of Janakpuri, Vikaspuri, Sitapuri, Bindapur, Budhela etc.

About one lakh of them are said to have entered Mizoram over the years as it shares a 404 km border with the Chin State. Though they have history and ethnic ancestry common with the Mizos, considering their high number, the Chins are not often welcomed by the locals. A Human Rights Watch report had detailed the severe discrimination, abuse, persecution, detention and deportation they had undergone in that state. The Chins residing in Mizoram are not registered with the UNHCR as the international agency has no access to the north-eastern state.

Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, the UNHCR cards issued to Chin refugees don’t automatically allow them the right to stay in India or have any legal validity to be able to open bank accounts or seek admission in educational institutions. But they do help the refugees in applying for long-term visas.

Location of Chin State in Myanmar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Besides India, many Chins have taken refuge in Malaysia and Thailand among other countries and have been issued UNHCR refugee cards following their registration locally. In Malaysia, the Chins are said to be the second largest refugee group. As per latest UNHCR statistics, out of the 157,580 refugees who registered themselves with the agency in Malaysia, 31,150 are Chin.

Chins, who are mostly Christians, have been fleeing their homeland following the attempt by the majority community in Myanmar to make Buddhism the state religion, reportedly leading to their persecution on religious grounds. Many refugees have also fled complaining of arbitrary arrests, sexual assault and repression by security forces after the 1988 declaration of martial law.

Announcing its decision in a “community message” issued to the refugees in different countries on June 13, the UNHCR said, “An analysis of the political, social and security development in Chin State over the course of several years has determined there are positive developments which are durable and sustainable in nature. While the situation in Myanmar is still fluid and unstable in parts of the country, the situation in Chin State is now stable and secure from a refugee protection perspective. Based on this, UNHCR presumes the ethnic Chin refugees are safely able to avail themselves to the protection of the Myanmar government and hence are no longer in need of international protection from UNHCR.”

The “community message”, a copy of which has been accessed by The Wire, said, “UNHCR has, therefore, decided, as of August 1, 2018, to begin the process of individual cessation of refugee status for ethnic Chins from Myanmar who are assessed to not have a need for international protection. From this onward, Chins approaching UNHCR to renew their refugee card will be provided individual counselling and offered two options.”

–One, extension of the existing refugee cards till December 31, 2019, meaning they will remain under UNHCR’s protection till that date and cease to do so from January 1, 2020. Their cards would no longer be renewed.

–Two,  individuals may request for an interview if they feel they are still in need for protection, leading UNHCR to then issue a letter confirming their refugee status. A final decision in such cases would be made within two months’ time: “Based on the final decision, the status will automatically cease and the UNHCR document will no longer be extended, or refugee status confirmed along with further card renewal.”

On June 19, in a message issued specifically to the Chins registered with the agency in India, it said, “Once your refugee status ends, it will be difficult for you to live legally in India.” To help them make an informed decision, it said it would provide individual refugees ground information on the Chin State and the neighbouring Sagaing Region. From September onwards, the agency would start reaching out to the refugees residing in India to visit the registration centre at Vikaspuri and the offices of UNHCR.

They have been told that financial assistance would be provided for travel to Myanmar “and restart life” back at home. It also said it is “engaging the Myanmar embassy in India” to make sure documentation is issued to them.

Refugees residing in Delhi have expressed their displeasure at the UNHCR decision. Speaking to The Wire, Go Kap, secretary of Zomi Innkuan, Delhi, said, “In spite of a democratic transition in Myanmar, which was hailed worldwide, we don’t feel safe to return home as long as the military’s veto power remains intact. As long as the military-backed constitution exists, there will never be sustainable peace and justice in Burma.”

Pu Dongi, president of the refugees of Chin Zomi community, told this correspondent, “In Myanmar, there is no respect for the human rights of its people, no independent press, no freedom of expression, no freedom of association, no political freedom and no freedom of religion or belief. There is no rule of law, particularly in the remote areas and no independent judiciary to enforce it. A ratified constitution of the country has not been implemented since the 1962 coup of General Ne Win, which shows there is no guarantee of democracy in the country. In such a situation, how do we go back?”

Zosanglian, president of the refugees belonging to the Matu community, one of the many tribes among the Chins, added, “The constitution can’t be implemented fully due to the rise of the 969 movement which has been wreaking havoc on religious minorities. They are burning our religious places, symbols like the cross and hymn books, not just in Chin State but in Arakan and Kachin States too. Religious persecution, the main reason why people fled their homes, continues. And that’s the reason we are vehemently opposed to going back to Chin State.”

The Wire has reached out to the New Delhi office of the prominent rights advocacy group Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO) for a response and it will be added when received.

The UN agency’s decision has been received with opposition by the refugees not just in India but elsewhere too. Soon after news spread on June 29, hundreds of Chin refugees reportedly protested at the UNHCR offices in Malaysia. As per news reports, the demonstration in Kuala Lumpur was organised by Alliance of Chin Refugees, whose volunteers said the protest was to bring the issue to the attention of the Global Summit of Refugees to be held in Geneva next week.

The Wire was unable to gain access to UNHRC officials in New Delhi on account of the weekend. However, a UNHCR spokesperson told Star Online of Malaysia in an email statement that “in the last four years, the UNHCR has regularly met with Chin community representatives in Malaysia to discuss the changing conditions in the Chin State and to help them prepare for the eventual time when the UNHCR will no longer be able to provide refugee protection.”

“Generally, refugee status and the international protection it affords is only provided by UNHCR for the length of time it is needed,” the spokesperson said.

In November 2017, as many as 1,600 Chins, many of whom were women and children, took shelter in four border villages in Mizoram after the Myanmarese Army launched a major offensive against the Arakan Army (AA) militants in the Chin State, close to the Indian border. In December that year, the deputy commissioner of Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district conducted a registration of the refugees staying in camps.

In January, media reports said that though the Indian Army “tried to repatriate the refugees after the Myanmar Army officials said they busted the AA hideouts in Chin state and took control of the area,” most of them have refused to return “apprehending violent confrontation”.