A sanctuary across the border


Staff member
Displaced due to political turmoil in their countries, more than 3,00,000 people from different cultural mores have taken refuge in India, the world's largest democracy. These include people from Myanmar, who started coming to India in 1989 because of the military crackdown after the pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

Living as refugees, the very mention of the word "home" brings back numerous memories.

Mary Neihkim, who came to India in 2007, says: "I worked as a teacher in Myanmar. Circumstances forced me to run from my country. The soldiers in Myanmar attempted to rape me and the situation had become so hopeless that it was pointless to approach the authorities for our safety."

Without money and belongings, she crossed the border and reached Mizoram. Staying with a family which provided her shelter, Mary was forced to become a housemaid.

Two months later, when she was threatened by local youth to leave Mizoram, she fled to Delhi. "People in Mizoram do not like Myanmarese nationals staying there due to dearth of jobs. But I can understand their problem," she says. "In Delhi, too, it is tough sharing space with strangers in rented environs. But then we are all sufferers and have no choice but to reconcile with the fact that there is no possibility of going back to Myanmar."

Neihkim is among those who earn a living by weaving their traditional handicrafts, including bags, scarves and shawls. She is now president of Central Chin Women Organisation (CCWO), which looks after the welfare of women of her ilk. She also works for a women's health-care organisation.

In all these years, she has not been able to speak to her mother and her brother back home in Myanmar. "Even when my father died, I could not be with my family. The only communication that I have is via e-mail and that too through family contacts," Neihkim says.

Like other refugees, she may not have dreams of her own any more but is determined to make a difference to many in society who go through similar hardships.

Several youngsters, though carrying the emotional baggage of being a refugee, are not only learning the ways of city life but are also volunteering to address issues of human rights, violence against women and vocational training.

Not knowing what the future of Myanmar, which has been under military rule for the past so many years, will be, they are working towards settling in their present environs.

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official explains: "India has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have a national refugee legal protection framework. But it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from different countries. While refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka are protected and assisted by the Indian government, UNHCR is directly involved with groups arriving from Myanmar and Afghanistan. And holders of documentation provided by us are able to obtain temporary residence permits from the authorities."

However, the official admitted that refugees often lived in poverty. Since they do not have the legal right to work, they just about manage to find low-paid employment in the informal job market and are often exploited. "Women and children are vulnerable to violence and instances of child labour are not uncommon," he said.

Though the UNHCR gives a subsistence monthly allowance, only a few fortunate people get that. Because of the lack of domestic legislation for refugees in India, the organisation is unable to provide aid to those in the northeast. That probably is the reason why scores of refugees find their way to Delhi every month.

Thus, for hundreds of Myanmarese refugees circumstances seem no better in the Indian capital. Most cannot speak English or Hindi and the language barrier adds to their struggles.

A young refugee, who fled her homeland a couple of years ago with her two sisters, said, "Our parents were scared that we would be harmed and forced us to leave."

The 20 year old has grown in the past two years, as have many others like her, who have travelled to Delhi to merge with the rest of the Myanmarese refugee population. They primarily live in west Delhi areas, including Janakpuri, Vikaspuri, Uttam Nagar and Hastsal.

Finding life daunting, she says: "We have not had the time to mourn what we left behind. Everyday struggle keeps us occupied and we live by the day rather than have plans for the future."

Rising numbers

  • UNHCR figures show that there were 43.7 million displaced people worldwide at the end of 2010.
  • They include 15.4 million refugees who fled across borders — 80 per cent of them to nearby developing countries.
  • The number of people forced to flee their homes to escape war or abuse has risen to its highest in the past 15 years.
  • Slightly more than half of all refugees are children under 18 years.
  • According to UNHCR, about 3,700 refugees were given identity cards as asylum-seekers in 2010, while more than 4,500 are still on the waiting list.
  • The number of refugees from Myanmar in India at present stands at about 10,000.
  • Most of them are pro-democracy activists, who faced persecution at the hands of the armed forces.
  • A number of men among them work as security guards and in factories and restaurants.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.