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How Mizoram has set up a de facto asylum regime for Myanmar refugees

The state government, local NGOs, local churches, international humanitarian organisations, and sometimes the refugees themselves, are working in tandem to ensure asylum seekers have basic amenities. But Mizoram may not have the resources for continuing assistance

Aizawl seems to be begrudgingly conscious of New Delhi's dual policy. Senior state government officials I spoke to emphasised very clearly that the help extended to the refugees is premised on a purely humanitarian logic. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala)

When the military in Myanmar snatched power from the elected civilian government by force in February last year, it triggered a historic political revolution in the country’s modern history. At the same time, it pushed Myanmar into a spiral of violence and uncertainty. Several dozen armed militias sprang up across the country to defeat the junta.

This time, some of the fiercest armed resistance to junta rule has come from ethnic minority regions that sit next to India and Thailand. Among them is Chin State, which shares a border of more than 500 km with Mizoram. Here, more than a dozen local civilian militias, in collaboration with the powerful Chin National Army (CNA), are jointly fighting against the junta to build a federal democratic union.

Naturally, this means that the situation in Myanmar has had a direct impact on India. As junta forces fanned across Chin State to quash the armed resistance, civilians caught in the crossfire immediately fled across the border to Mizoram. Three key factors drove this movement – the geographical reality of Chin State’s uninterrupted border with Mizoram; the political reality of an open India-Myanmar border; and the ethnocultural reality of the Chin-Mizo fraternal relationship. Together, these have transformed Mizoram, not for the first time, into a natural refuge for the Chins.

So far, according to the Mizoram government, 30,401 Myanmar nationals are seeking refuge in the state. But, the actual figure could be higher, given a wave of fresh influxes over the past weeks. It is a herculean task for the authorities to maintain an updated count of refugees in a state where the international border isn’t just porous, but completely open.

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The lack of clarity on the precise figure became quickly clear to me when I spoke to various people during a recent visit to Mizoram. Yet, I saw a well-oiled, de facto refugee regime at play. This stands on what is often referred to as a “whole of society” approach. It involves the state government, local NGOs, local churches, international humanitarian organisations, and sometimes the refugees themselves, working in tandem to ensure that those seeking asylum are at least provided with the basic amenities.

Influential civil society groups who have experience in social service, such as the Young Mizo Association, have become natural conduits for the state government to disburse humanitarian aid to the displaced people. A lot of it is propelled by strong Christian values of service and humanitarianism, buttressing the longstanding Chin-Mizo bond.

The Mizoram government has even issued temporary IDs to nearly every refugee covered in its count. These IDs – which do not mention the term “refugee” – stop short of giving the displaced people the kind of legal protection that a formal refugee policy would. Yet, they mirror a rudimentary Refugee Status Determination (RSD) system. In that sense, Aizawl’s current approach toward the refugees, with all its shortcomings, shows us a glimpse of what a model asylum regime could look like for a country that has not ratified the Refugee Convention 1951 and is only half covered by the UNHCR system.

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What is even more extraordinary is that the Mizoram government’s informal asylum policy has moved beyond basic amenities. Refugee children, right up to the high school level in some cases, are being admitted into the state’s schools. As I was wrapping up my visit to a camp housing some of the asylum seekers around 50 minutes outside Aizawl, an autorickshaw dropped a few children in school uniforms inside the compound. The faces of smiling refugee children returning from school gave me immense hope. For a displaced population, little can be more empowering than the young amongst them continuing to learn and grow.

But, things may not be as simple as they look from the outside. Even though the ruling party in Mizoram, Mizo National Front, is an NDA partner, the Aizawl-New Delhi relationship is plagued by an awkward policy dissonance. On one hand, the central government doesn’t want to touch a raw nerve in Mizoram by stopping the refugee flow. On the other, it is not keen on beating the drums on this informal asylum policy or openly assisting the Mizoram government, lest the Myanmar junta take offence.

Aizawl seems to be begrudgingly conscious of New Delhi’s dual policy. Senior state government officials I spoke to emphasised very clearly that the help extended to the refugees is premised on a purely humanitarian logic. This could mean that as far as the Mizoram government is concerned, the state’s de facto refugee regime is not political in nature and thus, does not negate the central government’s core policy on Myanmar. This shows the delicate dance of federalism that the Mizoram-Delhi relationship remains ensnared in.

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There is also the problem of resources. A growing perception that New Delhi has become indifferent to Mizoram’s plight is taking hold in the state. State government officials and locals contend that Mizoram is a small state with limited resources. If the number of refugees continues to rise steadily, so will Aizawl’s worries about its ability to look after them. Only last week, Chief Minister Zoramthanga asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to play a “proactive role” in restoring peace in Myanmar so as to ultimately stem the refugee flow. It seems that the MNF government is slowly revealing its threshold for asylum-giving, but one wonders if the Modi government is listening.

Mizoram goes to the polls next year. There is little doubt that the refugee issue will feature in the campaign. From there, it could go either way. Currently, there is a strong social and hence, political, consensus in the state in favour of giving refuge to those fleeing from Myanmar. But, if the influx continues and the central government continues to look away, this consensus might start fraying at the edges and eventually crumble.

New Delhi must ensure this doesn’t happen, and there are two clear ways to do that – provide sustained financial support to the Mizoram government and dial up pressure on the Myanmar junta to cede power to democratic forces. These are not easy tasks, but they are not impossible either. A good amount of positive political will should do the job.

The writer is an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

First published on: 04-10-2022 at 05:55:55 pm
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