Since the military coup in Burma in 1962 and increasingly since 1988, Chins from Chin State, Burma, have fled the Burmese military regime's ethnic, political, and religious persecution, seeking refuge in neighboring Mizoram State, India. The Chins have been largely out of sight and out of mind because India has had travel restrictions to the area and because UNHCR and the international community have had no access to the region. The restriction was lifted for 2011 and the lifting was extended through 2012.
They have no refugee protection, humanitarian assistance, or legal immigration status, and most live on the margins of Mizoram society. They are challenged by serious problems related to protection, livelihood, health, and education.
Many of the Chins seeking refuge are children, who came from Chin State, Burma, or who were born in Mizoram State, India. They lack legal status and often lack the basic necessities of life at a critical time in their mental, physical, and psychological development. Recently, many Chin youth have fled to India unaccompanied by parents or family, fleeing from conscription into the Burmese military, which has a long history of brutalizing the Chins. Also, Chin children born in Mizoram State, India, may be at risk of being stateless.
Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram find themselves in a protracted, urban refugee situation in which "their basic rights and essential economic, social, and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years of exile." There is no official "protection space" or refugee or legal immigration status for Chins in Mizoram, who live scattered throughout the state.
People who flee from persecution long for a durable solution to their situation. Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram cannot safely return home, no third country has offered to resettle them, and thus far they are not fully integrated into their host community in Mizoram State, India.
This bridge over the Tau River connects Mizoram State, India, with Chin State, Burma. Around 60% of Mizoram State's borders are international with 449 miles bordering Burma to the east and south and Bangladesh to the west. Therefore, forced migration of Chins from Burma directly impacts Mizoram. Also, India's foreign relations related to politics, security, and trade with Burma often impact Mizoram State, India, as well.
The Burmese military regime restricts minority religions in Burma, such as Christianity, reportedly imprisoning pastors and banning the renovation and construction of churches. Across 9 townships of Chin State, which is 90% Christian, the Burmese military regime has reportedly helped to destroy 9 landmark crosses, replacing them with Buddhist pagodas, monasteries, and statues, sometimes using forced Chin labor.
For several years after a Burmese military crackdown against the pro-democracy movement in 1988, India sheltered and fed the Chins who fled to Mizoram State, including at this barracks that served as a shelter in Champhai, near the Indo-Burma border. After Indian protection and assistance stopped, Chins continued fleeing from persecution in Burma. Unfortunately, the military regime also continues to persecute other minority ethnic groups in Burma as well, including the Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Rohingya, and others.The minority ethnic groups from Burma have for the most part sought refuge in Thailand and Malaysia with a relatively small number travelling to New Delhi. Rohingya have also fled to Bangladesh, where they remain stateless. Pro-democracy activists from the majority Burman ethnic group have also fled the regime’s persecution although not in the huge numbers seen among the minority ethnic groups.
A recent Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) study found that 92% of households surveyed from across the 9 townships of Chin State were subjected to a crime against humanity in the previous year. These included forced labor, arbitrary arrest, detention, imprisonment; abduction or disappearance; torture; rape or sexual violation; and murder. The delegation that created Seeking Refuge: The Chin People in Mizoram State, India, continued to hear accounts of recent arrivals consistent with the PHR report.
Without refugee protection and legal immigration status in Mizoram State, India, Chins are always at risk of arrest, detention, fines, and deportation. They especially fear widespread targeting of the Chins such as happened in 1994 and 2003, when 1000 and 8654 Chins were reportedly arrested and deported back to Burma. This kind of large scale enforcement against Chins has stopped in Mizoram. However, with ongoing smaller scale enforcement, fear is high and widespread in the Chin community in Mizoram.
For Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram, their situation is known as an "urban refugee" situation. They flee to cities, towns, and villages, and must find their own way. They are not being protected, processed, and provided for in traditional refugee camps but are mixed in with the local community. UNHCR and the international community have not had access to Mizoram State, India, to help provide refugee protection and assistance.
To help and support one another, Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram have come together in their local areas to form church congregations, fellowships, and community organizations. However, since they are undocumented they fear arrest and deportation by authorities, and have thus far maintained a low profile for the most part, not creating any umbrella organizations or engaging directly with authorities on behalf of the community.
"Mizoram" means land of the hill people. People from Chin State, Burma, and Mizoram State, India, have common racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic roots. They face two challenges: addressing the protection and humanitarian needs of Chins and reducing the burden that the Chins' forced migration causes for Mizoram State and India. One of the best approaches for addressing such challenges is a roundtable, solutions-oriented approach.
Some 70% of people in Mizoram State, India, are involved in the agricultural sector. Many farms still use the traditional slash and burn jhum method, although Mizoram State with the central Indian government is working to modernize cultivation methods. Most Chins also come from agricultural backgrounds. One of the important factors if Chins were to integrate long term into Mizoram would be integrating them into the agricultural economy.
One Mizoram pastor who knows the Chins' situation well said that the Chins are the poorest of the poor in Mizoram. Most Chins were poor when they fled to Mizoram. 73% of people in Chin State, Burma, live below the poverty line, Much of the poverty is caused by the Burmese military regime's persecution against them, which includes forced labor and forced taking of animals and crops without compensation, and also from the lack of governmental infrastructure development in places like Chin State. 32% of Chins have no access to health care, and 27% of Chin children have no access to primary education.
Many Chins and low-income locals in Mizoram spend hours a day getting water for family needs from the shallow public wells, like this boy in Saiha. Water can be scarce, especially during the dry season; and despite increased testing of the water by the government, many low-income people still suffer from water-borne diseases.
Both the government and church groups are still short of their infrastructure goals, especially healthcare infrastructure in rural areas, including in areas with large numbers of Chins seeking refuge.
The Young Mizo Association (YMA) is the largest NGO in Mizoram, known for delivering humanitarian services and mobilizing the Mizoram community, including encouraging reforestation projects in areas devastated by slash and burn farming. YMA members painted these trees with the colors of the YMA logo to protect them from being cut down. One key to possible long-term Chin integration into Mizoram would be establishing strong, mutually beneficial relationships with NGOs such as the YMA. YMA and other local NGOs can play an important role in the roundtable approach.
Mizoram State, India, is 95% Christian, and Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram are 90% Christian. The Christian religion is part of the daily life of both Chins and locals from Mizoram, such as in this procession on Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus' final journey into Jerusalem at the end of his life. The Chins' long-term future in Mizoram depends on being welcomed by Mizoram's churches and also having the government officially welcome the Chins. Christian leaders in Mizoram can play an important role in the roundtable approach and their denominations an important role in providing humanitarian assistance to Chins.
According to the Mizoram State, India, website the major Christian denominations in Mizoram are Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, and the Salvation Army. The other large denominations in Mizoram, in alphabetical order, include the Evangelical Church of Maraland (Saiha), the Lairam Jesus Christ Baptist Church (Lawngtlai), the Seventh Day Adventists (Aizawl), the United Pentecostal Church of Mizoram (Aizawl), and the United Pentecostal Church of Northeast India (Aizawl). Mizoram has many other faithful Christian denominations. It also has some communities of other religious traditions.
Mizoram's churches and nongovernmental groups provide education, health, and social services that complement the government services. Around half of the schools and many of the hospitals and clinics in Mizoram are run by church or private groups.
Village Councils play an administrative and judicial role. The Autonomous District Councils, Deputy District Commissioners, and the Local Administration Department of the Mizoram State government also play important roles in local civic life. Their decisions effect the everyday lives of Chins and local residents. The Governor is head of state in Mizoram and the Chief Minister the head of government. The legislature is the 40-person Assembly. The state government works closely with the locals and with the central government of India, especially with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Mizoram has two members of Parliament.
India and Burma collaborate on the Kaladan multi-modal transit project, which will provide northeastern India a transit route to the sea. The Kaladan River flows here through eastern Mizoram. India and Burma have some joint development projects related to the Kaladan River, a major river for both Mizoram State, India, and Chin State, Burma.
Many Chins live in Mizoram State's capital city of Aizawl with a population of 260,000. It is a major center for state government, religion, culture, healthcare, education, and business. On its edge is the state's airport.
Most Chins live in 5 of the 8 districts in Mizoram State: Aizawl, Saiha, Lawngtlai, Lunglei, and Champhai. Many of Mizoram’s 23 towns and 719 villages are built on the ridge roads of the state’s mountains. This is a house on a ridge road outside of Champhai.
Lunglei, a major town, has a cemetery used by local people, but Chins are not allowed to use it. Instead, they use this Riangvaite Thlanmual (Sojourner Cemetery) outside of town, 40 minutes beyond the one that local people use. As a consequence, transportation costs make it prohibitive for many to be a part of the burial service at the cemetery, and for them to make later visits to the grave sites of loved ones. Many Chins count these obstacles to proper burial among their most painful experiences in Mizoram. A hopeful sign is that in some Mizoram communities Chins have worked out burial arrangements that work well for both Chins and the locals.
Chin women and local women often sell vegetables and spices in Mizoram’s numerous open markets, either selling on consignment or for a fixed salary. Chin women lack legal status and have sometimes been subject to arrest, detention, and fines for selling goods without permits.
Here a group of men breaks down large rocks from a local quarry to be used for construction purposes. Many Chins also work constructing buildings and maintaining and building roads.
Chins and local agricultural workers often do agricultural work for Mizoram landowners. Some also raise a hog or chickens on their own for food and to sell to build scarce capital. These men singe the hair off this hog to prepare it for market.
As undocumented people, many Chins rely on day labor which unfortunately leaves many with chronic economic insecurity. Many Chin families suffer frequent evictions because of inability to pay their rent. The delegation met one man, a village leader in Chin State who had lived in Mizoram for 19 years. His family was evicted yet again the Monday after we met him.
For many Chins seeking refuge in Mizoram State, and for low-income locals, their poverty means that they lack clean water, food security, and decent and stable shelter. As a consequence of their poverty and living conditions, they often face health problems, and some have trouble affording treatment or transportation to treatment. This man suffers severe stomach pains in a local hospital run by one of the Christian denominations.
Chin families often cannot afford fees and costs at private schools, that make up around half of Mizoram's schools. Even when they are considering public schools that are free of charge, there are uniform and book fees as well as the cost of providing meals to the children. Still other Chin families need the children to work to help support the families. Instead of attending school, Chin children work.
Nearly 10% of Mizoram State's population are Chins seeking refuge. This added population, most of them poor, burdens Mizoram's resources and infrastructure. A roundtable approach calls for everyone to put both the Chin's plight and Mizoram's burden in the middle of the table and find ways to address both challenges collaboratively.
10,000 Chins currently seek refuge in New Delhi, India. India allows UNHCR to have an office in New Delhi, enabling UNHCR to do refugee status determinations and to provide some humanitarian assistance. Enabling UNHCR or the international community to carry out similar activities in Mizoram State would greatly improve the Chins' situation in Mizoram. India should be encouraged to allow UNHCR to expand its New Delhi activities to cover Mizoram or adapt refugee protection models used in Thailand or Malaysia or develop a unique model for Mizoram.
Serious protection problems persist, especially for single women and unaccompanied children, and most Chins have trouble integrating into the local community. Chin refugees and asylum seekers often lack livelihood and food security. They can be seen at a New Delhi night market foraging for food in the discarded piles of vegetables and fruit. The Seeking Refuge report encourages increasing the use of long-term resettlement as a durable solution for Chins in New Delhi.
Seeking Refuge: The Chin People in Mizoram State, India, encourages the Chins seeking refuge, local people from Mizoram, faith based and NGO leaders, the Mizoram State government, the central government of India, and UNHCR, the international community, and concerned governments and humanitarian and faith based groups to come together and take a solutions-oriented, roundtable approach to this humanitarian crisis. Place the two challenges in the middle of the table: addressing the Chin's protection and humanitarian problems and reducing the humanitarian burden on Mizoram caused by the forced migration of the Chin people.
Seeking Refuge: The Chin People in Mizoram State, India, explores ways that the NGOs, churches, UNHCR, the international community, concerned countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, other concerned governments, and the European Union can partner with the governments of Mizoram State and India to better understand and address the challenges facing the Chins and Mizoram State. Working in good faith, we can move toward solutions together, creating protection for Chins and moving forward with humanitarian assistance that helps the Chins and reduces Mizoram's humanitarian burden.