Refugees and agency

While Burmese refugees living in Thailand and Bangladesh receive intermittent attention, the situation of those in India goes unnoticed both within India and internationally. The northeastern states, in particular Mizoram and Manipur, host the majority of the 50,000 Burmese refugees in India. Another 1800 or so lived in New Delhi during the summer of 2006, and every month dozens more arrive in the capital from other parts of the country. Far from finding the support they are looking for in Delhi, however, Burmese refugees are faced with what one report recently called an "urban nightmare". Despite being directly under the nose of both the Indian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, a recent survey has found that national and international systems have largely failed Delhi's Burmese refugees. Their continued inability to integrate in the capital is indicative of the problems faced by refugees throughout India – problems that will continue until the central government brings the country's legislation with regard to refugees in line with international conventions. Most of the Burmese refugees in New Delhi are ethnic Chin from western Burma, a predominantly Christian group who have fled the country over the past decade citing religious persecution and other human-rights violations. The growth of Indo-Burmese relations over the last decade has contributed to a growing feeling of insecurity among the Burmese refugee community in Delhi, and makes the granting of legal rights to refugees even less likely – the formal placement of Burma on the United Nations Security Council agenda in September notwithstanding. Although in the immediate aftermath of the 1988 democratic uprising in Burma, India allowed the establishment of refugee camps in Mizoram and Manipur, within seven years most of those were closed down, leaving the refugee community almost entirely without support. Exact figures are unknown, but in recent years, in part due to the increasingly friendly ties between New Delhi and Rangoon, Indian authorities at state and federal levels have undertaken campaigns of arrest and deportation of refugees. While many Burmese in Northeast India have been able to integrate locally relatively successfully, many others face regular harassment, exploitation and persecution. Although UNHCR has been in India for a long time, the Indian government has in recent decades worked to significantly diminish the agency's role. Largely due to foreign-policy considerations, New Delhi's attitude towards the organisation has been ambivalent. While UNHCR was invited into India in 1969 in order to assist Tibetan refugees in the country, the agency was forced to leave in 1975 due to its failure to protect refugees from East Pakistan. At that time, India was seen as a fellow traveler with the Soviet Union, while there was a pronounced Western tilt towards Pakistan led by the United States. Then-UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who had dual Pakistani citizenship, was also not overly keen to help India deal with a massive influx of 10 million refugees. Ever since, India has been suspicious of UNHCR's selective appreciation of its mandate. In 1979, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, large numbers of Afghan refugees began to arrive in India – which continued to be on friendly terms with the Soviet Union. So as not to support the refugees directly and thereby risk souring its relations with Moscow, the Indian government decided to hand over responsibility for the Afghans to the UN, and in 1981 the UNHCR office was re-established in New Delhi. Since that time, the agency has been responsible for the recognition and protection of urban refugees within the capital, but nowhere else in India. New Delhi has continuously denied UNHCR a presence in any other part of the country, with the exception of a small office in Madras that nominally oversees Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. The agency has been refused access to refugees in camps, where they would normally provide or support international assistance. This includes the denial of access to the camps established in Manipur and Mizoram in 1988 for Burmese refugees. In 1994, UNHCR was also refused access to refugees being involuntarily repatriated to Bangladesh from the northeastern state of Tripura. At the same time, however, UNHCR-Delhi has never adequately appealed to the Indian government, the United Nations or the international community for much-needed support – a critical breach of its mission to provide protection and seek long-term solutions for these refugees. In the absence of any domestic legislation for the recognition and protection of Burmese refugees generally, UNHCR is responsible for determining refugee status only for asylum seekers who find their way to New Delhi. Those near the Burmese borders remain at the mercy of the Indian Border Security Force. Self-sufficient refugees Increasing numbers of Burmese refugees have thus decided to make the long trip from the Northeast to New Delhi, often on the (mostly false) assumption that being in the capital will speed up their applications for refugee status. Attempts by UNHCR to make Burmese refugees in Delhi self-reliant – by providing vocational training courses through the YMCA and the Calcutta-based Don Bosco Ashalayam – have largely failed, for a variety of reasons. Most refugees in Delhi are not only unemployed but see little hope of finding work, let alone becoming financially 'self-reliant'. Those who do find jobs are often exploited by their employers, and often arbitrarily fired without receiving owed wages. Few urban refugees are able to hold a job for long. While Hindi or English language skills would improve their chances of finding employment, the fact remains that Burmese refugees in India are legally relegated to the informal sector: as for all foreigners except Nepalis and Bhutanis, it is illegal for them to work in the country without a permit. Even though a UNHCR programme is available to supple-ment refugee salaries to ensure that they reach India's minimum wage of INR 3166 per month, the majority of refugees find it hard to sustain themselves. Large families are the worst affected, as are older refugees who do not fit the UN's definition of 'Extremely Vulnerable Individuals'. Finally, refugees who cannot obtain residential permits for reasons outside of their control – including reticent landlords and bribe-demanding officials – are not eligible to take part in the programme. With UNHCR itself experiencing a significant global funding crunch, the Delhi office's budget was slashed by 20 percent for 2006. The gradual withdrawal of financial support by the refugee agency, along with the failure of the self-reliance strategy, has made the condition of Burmese refugees in Delhi even more precarious than it had been previously. Refugee safety in Delhi has long been compromised by discrimination by neighbours, employers and the judicial system. Over the past year, however, most refugees have been unable to pay their rent regularly or to send their children to school. Many families have accumulated large debts, and are forced to rely on the generosity of churches or friends for their survival. Those Burmese recognised by UNHCR as refugees used to receive a monthly subsistence allowance. In 2003, however, the agency decided to discontinue this stipend after an initial one-year period, again as part of the attempt to make refugees self-reliant. Since the discontinuation of the living allowance, the number of evictions of Burmese refugees from their homes has increased significantly. Burmese refugee families receive educational grants from UNHCR to send their children to government schools. For most, however, this allowance does not cover the actual cost of a child's education – particularly at private schools, where admission standards are often more flexible. Since the discontinuation of the subsistence allowance, many parents have been unable to pay the monthly tuition fees. As a result, an alarmingly high number of children were expelled from school in 2004 and 2005. Although the exact number is unknown, studies estimate that 50 to 65 percent of Burmese students in Delhi were no longer in school by July 2005. UNHCR has subsequently urged Burmese refugee parents to enrol their children in government schools, where the tuition fees are minimal – despite the fact that many children are refused admission in these schools for lack of the required birth certificate. Refugees also voice dissatis-faction with the medical services provided by the Voluntary Health Association of Delhi (VHAD), a public-health NGO tapped by UNHCR to oversee refugee health. Many refugees describe the experience of hasty examinations and prescriptions of the same medicine, particularly vitamins, for any and every health problem. Furthermore, UNHCR's policy of reimbursing for expenses related to medical care fails to meet the needs of many refugees. The computation of the reimbursement is neither transparent nor consistent, and many report being reimbursed only a fraction of the costs incurred at the stipulated government hospitals. Finally, Burmese refugees in Delhi relate numerous difficulties in obtaining and renewing residential permits, documents required in order to take part in the Basic Salary Scheme, the UNHCR's minimum-wage top-up programme. To obtain the permit, refugees must show proof of residence, such as an electricity or water bill in their name. Landlords, however, frequently refuse to provide refugees with such documents, particularly because of tax liability. As a result, many refugees cannot benefit even from this basic safety-net scheme designed specifically for them. Dwindling durable solutions In the face of these and other problems of survival and integration, many Burmese refugees, both in Delhi and in India at large, see resettlement in third countries as the only realistic solution to their situation. Even here, however, refugees express frustration with UNHCR's lack of clarity and cooperation with regard to options and procedures. Furthermore, the agency has been accused of failing to effectively lobby third-country governments to accept and prioritise Burmese refugees for resettlement. According to the findings of a recent survey, the Burmese refugee community in Delhi seems to have little trust in UNHCR. While there is no doubt that the agency has good intentions – in particular in its efforts to make the community 'self-sufficient' – its strategies are running into critical problems, particularly due to a lack of adequate consultation with the community itself. The refugee community's decision to disband the New Delhi-based All Burma Refugee Committee (ABRC) in early 2006 was symptomatic of this failure of communication. Set up in 2001 by refugees based in Delhi, this organisation had until February of this year played a role in mediating between UNHCR and the Burmese refugee community. UNHCR had decided to fund ABRC's activities soon after its founding, under the condition that it refrained from any political activity. But part of the reason for its dissolution this year was the perception among various groups that the ABRC was a UNHCR creation, and that it did not effectively relay the concerns of the various groups within the Burmese community. As a result of its disbanding, UNHCR is now left with the difficult task of trying to strengthen communications with the refugee community in the absence of a unified representative group. While there exist numerous organisations, committees, councils and groups within the Burmese community in New Delhi, nearly all of these are political groups focusing on the situation within Burma, and take little or no action with regard to the community's welfare in the capital. India has been a member of UNHCR's Executive Committee since 1994. In the dozen years since then, however, it has neither ratified the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, nor enacted any domestic legal mechanism for the protection of refugees. As such, UNHCR's most critical responsibilities within India are twofold. First, the agency needs to actively lobby the New Delhi government at an international level to take immediate steps to conform to international standards on refugee recognition, protection, granting of legal status and assistance provision. New Delhi needs to allow all refugees to work, to provide them with travel documents, and to allow them freedom of movement within India. In addition, UNHCR must be given unrestricted access to refugees outside the capital. Second, until such time as India gives refugees within its borders full legal recognition, local integration will not be a real possibility. As such, UNHCR must pursue the option of third-country resettlement. The agency needs to actively work towards convincing its member states to increase the number of Burmese refugees they accept for resettlement, and subsequently to assist individual refugees in the resettlement process. Until these two responsibilities are acted upon with real commitment, the condition of India's Burmese refugees will continue to worsen.

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