The UN refugee agency’s decision to revoke protection for Chin refugees is not informed by a sincere assessment of conditions for return in Chin State.
By SALAI SH LIAN and KO THANG | FRONTIER
ON JUNE 13, Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India – numbering approximately 35,000 –were told they no longer needed international protection. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted that, while Myanmar remains “fluid and unstable”, Chin State is now “stable and secure”.
“My family wept when we heard this news,” said a senior member of the Chin Refugee Committee in Delhi, India. Since the UN refugee agency’s cessation announcement, there have been eight suicide attempts among refugees, resulting in one death and one arrest, both in Malaysia. This represented the extreme end of widespread disagreement over the determination.
Cessation announcements are governed by clear rules to ensure that decisions entailing mass repatriation are not taken lightly. These include community consultations, clear evidence concerning the stability and security of the place of proposed return, and a coherent plan for repatriation. However, in this case, the decision was taken without meaningful community consultation and the only identifiable rationale put forward was the fact that, over the last two years, Chin applying for refugee status have mostly failed.
UNHCR offices in India and Myanmar will undertake field trips to verify conditions in Chin State in November. Though this casts doubt on how informed the June cessation announcement was, it at least entails a delay in procedures.
However, the office in Malaysia – which hosts the overwhelming majority of Chin refugees, with 16,521 registered and more than 10,000 still seeking asylum – is pressing ahead with the cessation interview process.
During interviews, individual Chin refugees are given two options. The first is to agree that they no longer need protection and make arrangements to return to Chin State by the end of 2019. The second is to disagree and be asked to justify their fears in a two-month review process. If previous UNHCR cessation processes are any guide, the overwhelming majority will fail and be left without protection.
A cessation decision requires that improvements in the country of origin be “fundamental” and “durable”, whereby a refugee can expect an acceptable level of protection from national authorities. Democratic elections, the dismantling of security services complicit in crimes, peace agreements and the development of progressive policies are some possible indicators of this. While the 2015 election in Myanmar represented an important change, it has not contributed to fundamental change, particularly from a human rights perspective.
Refugees’ fears of persecution centre on the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, but this institution remains unreformed. Outside of civilian control, it continues to violate human rights with impunity. A recent UN Fact-Finding Mission has held the Tatmadaw responsible for the worst crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity, war crimes and possibly genocide. According to UNHCR’s own assessment, Tatmadaw impunity makes conditions in Myanmar “fluid and unstable”. What would make Chin State different?
Does UNHCR assume that the bilateral ceasefire agreement signed between the Tatmadaw and the Chin National Front, a Chin ethnic armed organisation, in 2012 has succeeded where others have faltered? UNHCR’s cessation guidelines require that ceasefire agreements be “monitored carefully”. Many aspects of the 2012 ceasefire, drawn from consultations with people across Chin State, have still not been properly implemented – particularly those related to religious freedom, protection from conflict-related abuses, and meaningful community involvement in large development projects.
For example, attempts by Chin people to register land for religious worship founder in red tape at the military-controlled General Administration Department. Chin Christians seeking a place of worship are generally forced to buy private land and bribe officials. In 2014, all the churches in Hakha, the Chin State capital, applied to convert their private ownership documents. To date, none have received a response.
These restrictions contribute to tensions with other communities, particularly in areas bordering Chin State where Christians are a minority and their faith is seen as a Western or “kala” religion. Local authorities often crack down harshly on missionary work and local communities sometimes resort to violence to obstruct Sunday services and other activity perceived as proselytisation.
Given difficulties in accessing education, children in some poor rural communities in Chin State are inducted into the “Na Ta La” schooling system, overseen by the military-controlled Ministry of Border Affairs. Though the schools offer free tuition and lodging, they ban languages other than Burmese and force conversions to Buddhism, partly by inducting children into Buddhist monasteries to train as novices.
Furthermore, mega development projects such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project, which aims to connect the port of Sittwe in Rakhine State with Northeast India via southern Chin State, have been undertaken with inadequate information and compensation for affected communities, and with exploitative labour conditions.
Paletwa Township, in southern Chin, has also seen sporadic conflict over the last three years between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, a Rakhine ethnic armed organisation. Civilians have been killed in the crossfire or by landmines, and approximately 8,000 people have fled to India or to settlements on the border with India and Bangladesh.
The situation in Chin State mirrors issues seen across the country: armed conflict, the displacement of civilians, continued militarisation, and development projects premised on a lack of local inclusion and undertaken without free, prior and informed consent. It is a depressingly familiar picture – far from “stable and secure” – and it leaves Chin refugees without the required guarantees on safe and dignified return.
UNHCR’s decision urgently needs to be reviewed, and assessments of “durable” change should await genuine progress in Myanmar’s peace process, involving commitments by the Tatmadaw to constitutional reform, and the development of a more open, tolerant politics in Myanmar, under which displaced Chin communities can feel safe and included.