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As coup and Covid batter Myanmar, India’s Northeast faces influx and infection risk

Mizoram and Mainpur are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis in the absence of proper mechanism to handle it. Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga recently urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help mitigate the “humanitarian crisis”

July 25, 2021 / 12:34 PM IST

The ongoing military crackdown triggered by the February 1 coup has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar, a section of which has reportedly entered India’s Northeast through the porous border the two countries share. With Covid-19 cases rising in Myanmar, India faces the twin risk of influx and infection, according to people familiar with the situation.

According to the United Nations, as of June 23 this year, an estimated 230,000 people were displaced because of the military action and retaliatory attacks by civilian resistance group as well as ethnic rebel outfits in the Southeast Asian nation.

In the wake of the February 1 coup d'état, Myanmar’s armed forces have launched what is seen as a brutal campaign to crush the civil disobedience against the junta regime.

As of July 21, a total of 929 people were allegedly killed by the security forces; 5,323 were arrested, charged or sentenced; and 1,963 were evading arrest after being charged with a warrant, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights organization based in Mae Sot, Thailand.

On the Covid front, the country is currently battling the third wave of the pandemic. As of July 23, Myanmar reported 6,459 deaths to the World Health Organization since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. July has been the worst month for Myanmar with over 2,000 deaths in just three weeks, something that is blamed on the alleged mismanagement of the crisis by the junta regime.


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India’s Northeast Faces Influx

The civil war in Myanmar has triggered a major humanitarian crisis, forcing thousands of people to seek refuge in neighboring India. India’s northeastern region shares a porous 1,643-km border with Myanmar. Two states, Mizoram and Manipur, have seen an influx of refugees since the Myanmar carried out what is being called unlawful arrests, detention and extrajudicial killings.

India is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. And the Union government does not officially accord refugee status on foreigners seeking shelter even on humanitarian ground, and considers them illegal immigrants.

In April, the Central government asked the northeastern states to maintain a record of the refugees and allow them to stay until the situation improves in Myanmar. Before that, Ministry of Home Affairs had written to the chief secretaries of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh to “take appropriate action as per law to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India”.

Situation in Mizoram & Manipur

Mizoram and Mainpur are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis in the absence of proper mechanism to handle it. Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga recently urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help mitigate the “humanitarian crisis”.

According to locals and NGO workers, an estimated 16,000 Myanmar nationals are currently taking shelter in three bordering states of Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. Of them, about 10,000, including 20 lawmakers, are believed to be staying in Mizoram alone.

“The Mizoram government does not reveal any data; nor it has offered any concrete assistance to the refugees because of the Central government directive,” Aizawl-based journalist Zodin Sanga told Moneycontrol.

The people from Myanmar’s Chin state that shares border with India have ethnic ties with Mizo people. Historically, Mizoram has been the primary destination for the Chin community fleeing oppressive military regimes in Myanmar.

The Indian state is home to nearly 100,000 refugees, about 20 percent of the total Chin population in Chin State, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an earlier report. And the latest influx is adding to Mizoram’s burden.

Acknowledging the gravity of the situation Zoramthanga told Modi during a virtual meeting on July 13 that the refugee influx amid the pandemic has strained the state's financial condition.

“After the military junta overthrew the democratically-elected government of Myanmar, thousands of Mizos who lived in that country crossed over and sought refuge and shelter in Mizoram. Mizos across the border in Myanmar are our brethren with whom we share close cultural and family ties, with many having close family connections...

“It was not possible for Mizoram to refuse shelter to our own brethren who fled Myanmar fearing for their lives. Soon after this, the second wave of the pandemic manifested and Mizoram not only had to fight the pandemic with its limited resources but also had to look after the refugees from Myanmar and provide them food, shelter and medicines. This has strained our financial resources,” Zoramthanga reportedly said during PM Modi’s meeting with chief ministers of the northeastern states.

In Manipur, about 5,000 refugees are sheltering mainly in Moreh and Churachandpur, two persons with knowledge of the matter told Moneycontrol. The Manipur government has been in denial about the existence of the refugees, but “this is an open secret”, said one of them.

Earlier this month, Imphal-based NGO Human Rights Alert (HRA) moved the Manipur Human Rights Commission, highlighting the “custodial death of two Myanmar women and violation of right to food and right to health of the surviving 27 Myanmar nationals in judicial custody” in Churachandpur District.

According to the petition filed by HRA, a copy which has been reviewed by Moneycontrol, on March 31 this year, 31 the Manipur police arrested 29 Myanmar nations, including six minors, for staying without proper documents in Ngathal and Kawnpui villages of Churachandpur. A First Information Report (FIR) no 38 (03)2021 CCP.PS under section 14 of Foreigners Act was registered against them.

Out of 29 refugees kept under detention at a makeshift prison complex in Churachandpur, many were found to be Covid positive. Among them, two women – aged 46 and 40 years – succumbed to the viral infection – on June 6 and June 8.

Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of HRA, claims that inmates were not provided food by the government and solely depended on the food offered by civil society organisations.

“They were also deprived of the mandatory medical attention they deserve as any other prisoner,” he said.

“This systematic deprivation of the right to food and right to health in state custody during the pandemic, ultimately causing the death of two of them, is nothing short of custodial violence. It is in violation of the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India available to “all persons” including the “non-citizens,” the petition said.

The Manipur Human Rights Commission sought a response from the state government by July 17.

“I am told that the Director General Prisons has submitted a response to the MHRC, but I have not been served a copy yet. The process may have been delayed due to the total curfew in Manipur due the pandemic,” Babloo Loitongbam told Moneycontrol.

In May, the Manipur High Court allowed seven Myanmar refugees to travel to New Delhi to seek protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Colombo-based South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights organisations, has expressed concern about the wellbeing of the Myanmar nationals and the impact of the influx of refugees on the host community in India’s northeastern states.
Jayanta Kalita is a Delhi-based senior journalist. Views are personal.

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