The Forgotten Faces: Chin Refugees in India’s Quandary

The Forgotten Faces: Chin Refugees in India’s Quandary

Tanvi Sharma

“The Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India” is what a Human Rights Watch report dated January 2009 states so bluntly. What brought on this unapologetic disposition back in 2009, still continues and pervades the lives of the Chin people seeking asylum in India, even in 2023. From structural xenophobia to the Indian law failing the refugees- the everyday struggles of the Chins are unseen and pushed furthermore to the peripheries. 

The Tatmadaw’s Atrocities

Post coup Myanmar is seeing extreme assault and violence committed by the Tatmadaw (Myanmarese Military) towards the ethnic Chin communities residing in the impoverished Chin State. These war crimes toward the Chin people stem from continued efforts to persecute the Christian Chins, so as to replace Christianity with Buddhism and coerce the assimilation of all minority ethnic communities into mainstream Myanmarese culture. Leaving no stone unturned, these gross violation of human rights include forced labour, arbitrary arrests, gender based sexual violence, arson, targetting clergy and more. 

Tatmadaw’s campaign of arson and killing targeting civilians in Chin state
PHOTO: Atthar Mirza & Dylan Moriarty

Furthermore, Chin State is the poorest region in Myanmar, making its residents more vulnerable to military assaults and crimes. Over 80% of the Chin population live in poverty and have food insecurity, and given their ethnic marginalization and limited resources, they find themselves at the mercy of the Tatmadaw. These factors significantly influence the decision to seek asylum in neighboring countries, India included.

India’s legal Inadequacies- Lack of Refugee Policy

With core values and ancient principles such as ‘Atithi Devo Bhava,’ which embodies the belief that a guest is akin to God, the Indian refugee law, or its lack thereof, opens a controversial and ongoing debate. Despite being home to around 74,600 Myanmarese refugees and asylum seekers, India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 Protocol. While the most popular speculated reason for India not being a party to the UN Convention is the convention’s Eurocentric Approach, India has furthermore failed to formulate an independent Refugee Policy. Nonetheless, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works in close tandem with the Central Government of India to offer protection and upliftment services to forcibly displaced people from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar, and has been operating since 1981.

“Where there is no Law, there is no Freedom”

– John Locke

Underscoring the critical relationship between legal frameworks and how freedom is upheld by them, John Locke’s statement glares at the situation of the refugees in India. With the absence of a Refugee Law, the treatment of refugees is governed by India’s Registration of Foreigners Act of 1939, the Foreigners Act of 1946, and the Foreigners Order of 1948. None of these Acts differentiate between undocumented migrants and refugees. The most fundamental difference between migrants and refugees lies in the fact that refugees are forcibly displaced people, while migrants are not. Hence to subject these two, very distinct sections of people under the same legislations is deplorable. In 2020, the Indian government made an announcement regarding the possibility for registered refugees to seek long-term visas along with work and/or study privileges. Nevertheless, the actual number of long-term visas granted to Chin refugees remains uncertain. Consequently, India lacks an established procedural mechanism to officially safeguard refugees residing within its territory. This deficiency can further be exploited to the benefit of notorious criminals and assailants, especially targeting Chin refugee women. Unfortunately, refugees in India are subject to ad hoc policies that vary significantly based on their nationality and geopolitical stances. 

Considering how the Chin refugees share ethnic and kinship ties with the Kuki-Mizo-Zomis in Mizoram and Manipur states of India, this contention transcends not only boundaries, but ethnicities as well. And with the absence of a refugee framework, least ensured is a state of chaos. For instance, back in 2021 the Mizoram State Government of India issued a Standard Operating Procedure regarding facilitation of refugees from Myanmar. However, the Ministry of Home Affairs was quick to reiterate how the State Governments have no powers to grant refugee status to any foreigner. Rising ideological differences between the Mizoram State Government and Central Government on this matter has led to tiffs and clashes, which could have possibly been avoided with an explicit refugee framework in place.

A peaceful demonstration by Chin Refugees in India condemning the Tatmadaw in Myanmar and demanding a proper legal refugee framework from the Indian Government.

Chin Refugee Experience in New Delhi

With virtually no legal aid and protection particularly articulated for Refugees, the living conditions of the Chin Refugees can be notably challenging. Employment prospects are primarily confined to the informal sector, frequently characterized by low wages, strenuous labor, and safety hazards. Working mostly in factories in West Delhi, the degree of exploitation they face increases furthermore due to language barriers, as hardly 10% of these refugees can either speak English or Hindi. Due to their distinct physical, cultural, and linguistic characteristics in comparison to the local population in Delhi, their “otherness” undoubtedly exposes them to the potential risk of mistreatment and harassment by the local communities.

As a breathe a fresh air, in an endeavor to combat the sexual and gender based violence against refugee women and to provide them with a safe, free space- The UNHCR runs a Women’s Protection Clinic (WPC) in a house down a winding lane in western New Delhi- especially for the refugee women of the Chin community from Myanmar. The WPC was established in 2005 and has been primarily funded by the Australian government for the majority of its existence. More than 1,250 women and girls from the ethnic Chin community in Myanmar have undergone counseling at the clinic, where a policy of absolute confidentiality is upheld. However, the clinic’s primary role is to emphasize areas where protection is lacking.

Since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is assigned with the duty of looking into the Chin Refugee case, it also provides many refugees with their only form of identification- the UN Card. However, the possession of only a UN Card to seek medical facilities by the Chins, inculcates multiple levels of complexities and hardships, as many healthcare facilities might not accept them. Especially pertaining to the covid-19 Pandemic, India’s vaccination drive only consisted of aiding its own citizens who held one of the 11 mandatory official documents. Hence, refugees with only UN Cards were barred from getting vaccinated. An estimated 6 Chin refugees succumbed to Covid-19 without any medical care or vaccinations because they lacked documents and monetary resources required for hospitalization. This indirect denial of vaccines to the Chin Refugees by the Government can be seen as a breach of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution- which safeguards the fundamental right to life and liberty. 


While the Chins escape Myanmar due to compromised safety and persecution, the degree of betterment their lives achieve in India is questionable. The UNHCR in India carries out the process of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) for individuals seeking asylum from non neighboring countries and Myanmar, yet even the UNHCR is not permitted by the Indian Government to set up offices in border states, which might have aided in efficiency of the RSD process. It is a fact that India has been applauded globally for its treatment of the Tibetan Refugees– by enabling Tibetan Refugees to be beneficiaries of Central Government schemes such as MGNREGA and PDS. However this support is not the same, as can be seen in the case of Rohingya and Chin Refugees. Will India adopting a refugee policy raise concern of security due to its already porous borders? With over a staggering 36.4 Million refugees globally, it certainly becomes interesting how India’s politics of responding to the refugee crisis pans out not only within India, but also strongly depicts India’s commitment to humanitarian assistance and diplomatic relations with the home countries of these refugees.

Chin Refugees protesting outside UNHCR Delhi on World Refugee Day, demanding a better future Source:

Questions for thought

  1. What are the implications of labelling Chin Refugees as illegal immigrants rather than creating a separate refugee category?
  2. What does the lack of media coverage on Chin issues tell us?
  3. Will India framing a proper refugee law pose state security issues?

Suggested Readings

  1.  “WE ARE like FORGOTTEN PEOPLE” the Chin People of Burma: Unsafe in Burma, Unprotected in India. Human Rights Watch, 2009.
  2.  Sharma, Maina. REFUGEES in DELHI. 2009.
  3.  Kumari, Sheena. “Burmese Refugee Women in India: Victims and Agents of Empowerment.” Peace Prints: South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding, vol. 4, pp. 3–5.

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The Forgotten Faces: Chin…

by Tanvi Sharma time to read: 6 min