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India: Will there be a roll back of Myanmar's refugees?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
March 22, 2023

Thousands of Myanmar's nationals, caught in the crossfire between the army and pro-democracy rebel forces, have crossed the border and entered the northeast Indian state of Mizoram.

Refugees collecting water at Pang village in India's eastern state of Mizoram near the Myanmar border
Humanitarian voices have criticized the Indian government's response to the crisisImage: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

As the violence in Myanmar shows no signs of abating, an influx of refugees is being witnessed in north-eastern India.

The arrivals, mostly from Chin state, continue to take refuge in Mizoram following a military coup in the neighboring country in February 2021.

Chin refugees, same ilk

Owing to shared ethnic ties, history, and kinship with the people of the Chin state of Myanmar, Mizoram has welcomed the refugees with open arms, allocating funds for their welfare in open defiance of the central government's ban.

Meanwhile, Mizo voluntary associations, churches and local individuals have led a grassroots humanitarian response and mobilized local support.

According to estimates by the state government and charities, over 31,500 refugees have taken shelter in camps spread across Aizawl, Lawngtlai and Siaha districts of the state, living with bare necessities. Many live in shacks with tinned roofs or plastic tarpaulins overhead.

The home department says 30,385 Myanmar nationals, including 10,013 females and 11,650 children, have taken shelter across all 11 districts of Mizoram. Over 13,000 people have been lodged in 160 relief camps while the rest live outside.

"Life is at a standstill here. Our children do not go to school and we depend on the largesse of our hosts," Man Chung, a refugee living in a camp, told DW.

"Some of us take up odd jobs as daily laborers with local farmers but at times there is no work for weeks," Aye Laizo, another refugee, told DW.

The Thailand-Myanmar border clinic for people fleeing war

Given their meager infrastructure and resources, the state is stretched beyond capacity in the absence of government help. Though civil society organisations have been demanding stronger intervention from Prime Minister Narender Modi's government on the unfolding refugee situation, there is still little forthcoming.

Modi 'failing' the refugees

"The Indian government is failing to provide any assistance to Myanmar's refugees simply because Mizoram with one parliamentary seat does not matter in national politics while the ruling BJP with one legislator in the state assembly does not have a future in state politics," Suhas Chakma, Director of Rights and Risks Analysis Group, a think-tank, told DW.

"India's refugee policy is all about ethnic or religious preference, domestic politics and at times, regional geo-politics," added Chakma.

According to UN figures, approximately 80,000 Myanmar refugees have fled to other countries in the region since the coup. Hundreds of thousands more have utilized regular and irregular pathways to leave the country.

Since the coup, India has been cautious about its diplomatic relationship and has adopted a middle path, saying that restoration of democracy in Myanmar remains a priority.

New Delhi has economic interests in maintaining cordial relations with Myanmar's military as the country has natural resources, including natural gas, petroleum, and rare earth metals useful for India's high-tech industry.

A bridge between south Asia and southeast Asia, Myanmar has always loomed large on India's diplomatic horizon and its importance is all too obvious.

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Myanmar crucial to India's national security

Both countries share a long land border of over 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar is also critical to India's national security. The two countries have sealed a pact to share real time intelligence to combat Indian insurgents operating from the border region.

Four north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – share the international boundary with Myanmar.

"India should do much more to help the refugees. The UN special rapporteur has recommended that the government give the UNHCR unfettered access to refugees and asylum seekers throughout the country including Mizoram," Babloo Loitongbam, director of Human Rights Alert, told DW.

Loitongbam, who is currently in Geneva for the human rights council session, pointed out that UN special rapporteur Thomas Andrews emphasized that paltry refugee resettlement quotas and a weak international refugee system have left Myanmar's neighbors sheltering refugee populations indefinitely.

"Member states have underfunded the humanitarian response to the crisis, increasing instability and contributing to displacement and international migration," said Loitongbam.

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State shoulders responsibility

With no support coming in from New Delhi, the onus has fallen on the state to provide land for the refugee camps, and drinking water, toilets, and electricity.

"We still have people trickling in twos and threes from across the border. The state has provided them temporary identity cards while some carry the pink I-cards of their homeland. We hope the situation gets better in Myanmar," Professor Malsawmliana, assistant secretary of the Young Mizo Association (YMA), told DW.

The YMA, the state's largest and most influential voluntary group, along with an alliance of local non-governmental organizations such as the Mizo Students Association and the Chin Health Organization (CHO) have been at the forefront of providing the refugees shelter and medical relief.

"Some of the refugees are suffering from anxiety and mental stress given what they have faced and the dangerous trek they have undergone. They are uncertain about their future," Dr Numang of the CHO told DW.

Later this year assembly elections are due in Mizoram and the refugee problem could be an electoral issue. New Delhi has instructed paramilitary forces to be alert at the border and prevent a further influx of refugees. Moreover, it has also been wary of taking a public stand on the events unfolding in Myanmar.

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However, state chief Minister Zoramthanga, a former insurgent leader turned democrat, has made his position clear maintaining that the Chins were the brethren of the residents of Mizoram and he would not turn them away.

"I think the government in New Delhi needs to take a proper stand on this issue. Just like it wanted to give citizenship for Hindu refugees through the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2020, it should take a stand for refugees who are camping in Mizoram," a senior YMA leader told DW.

Close observers say the situation in Mizoram requires a careful and nuanced approach that considers the concerns of both the refugees and the local population.

"Dialogue, humanitarian aid, diplomatic efforts, security measures, resettlement, and long-term solutions are all needed to address this crisis," said Loitongbam.

Edited by: John Silk

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11