The row over Myanmar refugees in Mizoram

Why is the Centre’s directive at odds with the State government’s stand on the influx?

The story so far: With the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, Mizoram is caught between a humanitarian urge and India’s policy on refugees. At least 1,000 people from the adjoining Chin State of Myanmar are said to have crossed over to Mizoram, fearing a military crackdown. The Mizoram government favours providing refuge to the Chins, who are ethnically related to the majority Mizos in the State, but the Ministry of Home Affairs has made it clear that “India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol theron”.

When did the refugees start arriving?

Mizoram began feeling the heat a month after the military coup when three police personnel crossed over to Lungkawlh village in Serchhip district. Within weeks, the number increased to almost 400. According to the State Home Department, a majority of those who sought asylum were deserters from Myanmar’s police and fire services department. They had to flee after joining the civil resistance movement.

The influx of Myanmar nationals was reported from Hnahthial, Champhai, Saitual and Serchhip districts. Most of the refugees waded across the Tiau River that runs along much of Mizoram’s 510-km border with Myanmar.

Is this the first time this has happened?

Extremism, counter-insurgency and sectarian violence have driven people out of Myanmar into India in the past as well. More than 1,200 Buddhists and Christians from Myanmar’s Arakan State had taken refuge in Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district in 2017. They fled their homes after the Myanmar Army clashed with the extremist Arakan Army. The refugees stayed back for more than a year. Thousands of Chins are said to be living in Mizoram for more than 40 years now.

There have been other such instances, though not on this scale. Manipur, too, has been dealing with the influx issue, although on a smaller scale, for a long time. The villages of the Kuki-Zomi have often had people crossing over from Myanmar.

How porous is the border?

Unlike India’s border with Pakistan and Bangladesh, much of the border with Myanmar is without any fence. The Assam Rifles personnel guard the border but a tough terrain comes in the way of maintaining airtight vigil.

There have been calls to fence the border. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Tapir Gao, said fencing the border would also help in checking the movement of extremist groups to and from Myanmar.

Some are against the idea, insisting that a fence would make “free movement” of border residents into each other’s country difficult. The two countries had in 2018 agreed to streamline the movement of people within 16 km of the border on either side. There are more than 250 villages with about 3,00,000 people living within 10 km of the India-Myanmar border.

Where do the Centre and Mizoram stand now?

As a humanitarian gesture, the Mizoram government on February 26 issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) to Deputy Commissioners of border districts to facilitate the entry of refugees and migrants. The SOP stated that all Myanmar nationals entering Mizoram in connection with the political developments in the country shall be properly identified.

The government said those facing a threat to their lives should be treated as refugees, given medical care, relief and rehabilitation and security. But the SOP was revoked on March 6 after the Centre conveyed its displeasure to the State over the development. On March 10, the North East Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a letter to chief secretaries of Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Director General of Assam Rifles, directing them not to allow refugees from Myanmar and take appropriate action as per law. The Ministry pointed out that State governments have no powers to grant “refugee status to any foreigner”.

Mizoram is not happy about this. “They are like family … we share ethnic ties with them,” said Rajya Sabha member from Mizoram K. Vanlalvena. “We do not want the Indian government to offer them full-time citizenship or employment. The only thing we ask is to let these refugees stay until their country returns to normalcy.”

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