Struggling outside, shackled at home
Over 10,000 Myanmar refugees live a hard life in Delhi without any rights or support
Min was in high school when he fled his village in Myanmar in 2006. He then served as a porter for underground rebels and the army was on his heels to prosecute him. “They told the boys to carry their equipment, but I did not know what we carried. They were sealed,” he says.
Min and a group of Burmese refugees are sitting in a cramped room in a West Delhi locality, waiting for the arrival of Sein, one of the earliest refugees here. Beside him is Than, a tattooed man with an aura of a revolutionary. Here he is famed as one of the 34 Burmese ‘freedom fighters’ who were arrested in the Andaman Islands in 1998 and later transported to a jail in Kolkata.
After their release, they have been living here in the Capital with no means of livelihood, no work permits and only the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to support them. The “rebel” tag has made a return to home unlikely too. “I took up arms to defend my people. The military humiliated us,” says Than, who joined the Karen National Union (KNU) in 1996.
Khin, who documented their conversations with a hand-held camera, is a 29-year-old ethnic Kachin. He makes documentaries for an online Burmese news site on the living conditions of Burmese refugees in New Delhi. “These documentaries are to prepare the people, to show them the difficulties of living here,” says Khin, who is also grooming Min to become a reporter.
The strictly censored media back home has forced Khin and a handful of other refugee journalists to stay underground. The Electronic Transactions Act, 2004, can send a person to jail for up to 15 years for just sending an e-mail. Access to sites such as Yahoo!Mail, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is also regularly blocked. But Khin still manages to send stories home.
According to UNHCR estimates, over 10,000 Burmese refugees spread across several ethnicities and backgrounds live in Delhi.
In a multi-ethnic country like Myanmar, ethnic values hold strong. But here, these refugees are compelled to live together, sometimes a dozen sharing a single room. They are united by a common fight for survival.
With no legal and educational rights, finding a decent job in the city is difficult. Desperate, they settle for work in the informal sector but for lesser than nominal wage. Some Burmese women even fill in as waitresses in night parties earning up to Rs.250, simply because others are unwilling to work at night.
“If Indians get Rs.3,000, we get Rs.1,500, but we pay double the rent. From rickshaws to groceries, we are charged more, simply because we look different,” says a refugee.
While outright prejudice is routine, they also jostle with scarcity of clean water, unhygienic conditions and unfriendly landlords. Packaged water is unaffordable and water-borne diseases and stomach disorders are common.
Just then a tired-looking middle-aged man enters the room with an envelope in his hand. It is Sein. “Sorry for making you wait. Even a day’s delay in extension costs us a lot of money,” he jokes in Burmese.
He had returned from the Foreign Regional Registration Office. Like most Burmese refugees here, he understands neither English nor Hindi.
Sein, an ethnic Burmese (the largest group in Myanmar), recalls his days as a farmer before he escaped to Manipur after the October 1989 demonstrations and then to New Delhi in 2006. Life was calm and he even owned a ferry.
But why did he choose India? “India is a democracy. In Thailand we can live comfortably in camps. But there is no right to protest. Our girls are pulled into flesh trade,” he says.
He has no hope for resettlement any time soon, but he has a young daughter with an uncertain future. On the political future of Myanmar, he says staring at a mural of Aung San Suu Kyi, “No matter who comes to power, nothing will change unless the Constitution is altered.”
While Sein serves organic tea and lapht (pickled tea leaves with beans) to guests, his wife applies thanaka (a paste made from ground bark with cooling effects) to her daughter’s face. “India is too hot. We cannot bear it,” she says.
(All the names have been changed to protect identities)