Myanmarese refugees find no solace

They live in cramped one-room homes without adequate water, food

Several villages in west Delhi have emerged as the base of thousands of Myanmarese families, who have been forced to seek shelter due the conflict back home. One of them, Budhela, has emerged as the capital’s ‘Burma Town’. 

The military regime’s conflict with its political opponents and ethnic groups has displaced lakhs of people in Myanmar over the decades. Persecution due to ethnicity, religion and political opinion are cited as the main reasons for seeking asylum in neighbouring countries. 

Some one lakh people have taken shelter in India, and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are 8,306 registered Burmese refugees, including 3,924 women, in Delhi.

“We decided to come to India due to fear of getting killed in Burma. We first sneaked into Bangladesh, where we spent three-four months, after which we managed to sneak into India,” says Siupam, who came to India from Myanmar’s Chin state.

They hope for a better life in Delhi but a visit to Budhela village reveals that most families struggle for basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. They live in cramped one-room tenements without kitchen facilities and running water, and the area seems to have been devoid of development in recent years. In addition, the inability of many refugees to communicate in English and Hindi also make them vulnerable to harassment.Often the only document they carry is a UNHCR card, so the jobs they get are in the informal sector – casual workers, waiters, beauticians and security guards. There is also a ‘Refugee Assistance Centre’ in the village where Burmese refugees learn skills that they hope will help in getting jobs in the informal sector. 

Kaingur, 43, was a farmer in Myanmar, who fled to Mizoram in August 2002 with his wife and three children. In Mizoram, he worked as a labourer with a road construction contractor and sold vegetables. But the earnings were barely enough to feed the family, so they came to Delhi in 2002. 

After a long phase of unemployment, Kaingur found work as security guard with a restaurant in west Delhi’s Rajouri Garden and currently earns Rs 5,000 per month. With a room rent of Rs 1,500 along with other expenses, his family still barely manages to scrape through the month.

“Living conditions here are bad and we don’t get any assistance from the government. We are also forced to frequently shift houses as we are not able to afford them,” he says.

A recent report from the Burma Centre in Delhi says fleeing to India and particularly the capital has provided little solace. It says life in Delhi has turned into another nightmare for the refugees. 

Several women told the Centre that they continue to live in the fear due to the treatment they received at the hands of locals. They allege physical abuse, molestation, sexual assault and rampant discrimination, be it at their rented houses, workplaces, public spaces or even on the streets. 

“To add to their woes is the difficulty of finding work and complying with the demands of local employers. They don’t report sexual assaults for fear of social stigma and shame. Even those cases that are reported to police stations are either not registered or result in the victim being put under pressure to abandon prosecution in exchange for cash,” the report says.

India has not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and does not have a refugee law, but the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are protected by the Constitution. They have access to health care and their children can go to school.       

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