Chin refugees in India fleeing persecution in Burma are left to fend for themselves as the UNHCR and local organisations tasked with protecting them fall prey to a “culture of denial and victim-blaming,” says the Chin Human Rights Organisation.
The Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), a non-governmental human rights watchdog founded in 1995, has warned that hundreds of Chin refugee women and girls are becoming the victims of rape in the Indian city of New Delhi, with UNHCR and the Indian government failing to protect them.
Fleeing abuses in Chin State, refugees in India are exposed to a host of new dangers. According to the CHRO there are over 100,000 refugees in Mizoram, the Northeast Indian State that borders Chin State. These refugees lack legal protection, as India is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention – UNHCR is not allowed access to Mizoram which CHRO says exposes the refugees to constant threat to their protection, including mass arrests and forced returns.
CHRO estimated that 8,000 Chin refugees had moved to New Delhi to seek UNHCR protection. UNHCR has its India field office in the city. Rather than finding added security, however, CHRO says that the refugee women were left vulnerable to sexual assault.
“Over the past three years, refugee-led community-based organizations in New Delhi have documented over 200 cases of violent attacks perpetrated by local Indian men against Chin refugee women and children, over half of them sexual assaults,” Rachel Fleming, advocacy director of CHRO said in an interview with Karen News, “the situation for Chin refugee women and children in New Delhi is very serious. They live in a constant state of fear of sexual assault.”
A spokesperson from UNHCR in New Delhi confirmed to Karen News that sexual violence was a problem, but said that their ability to help was constrained because they did not have powers of law enforcement.
“Sexual violence against women is an unfortunate reality. UNHCR does not have law enforcement authority and can only help with redress through the national court system. UNHCR is in regular dialogue with community leaders and has encouraged initiatives such as community vigils or self-defence training.”
Yet the CHRO claimed that the UNHCR and local partner organisations were responding with doubt to report of rape made by Chin refugees.
“Chin refugees in New Delhi are currently experiencing problems with UNHCR and its implementing partners with regard to the issue of sexual and gender-based violence.” Rachel Fleming said, “Both UNHCR and its implementing partners Don Bosco and the Socio-Information Legal Centre respond with doubt when a Chin refugee woman comes forward to report a sexual assault she or her child has experienced. There seems to be a culture of denial and victim blaming within those organizations. In some ways this simply reflects prevailing attitudes within Indian society, but Chin refugees deserve more from UNHCR and its partners, which are supposed to protect and support them.”
UNHCR said it took all allegations seriously and stated in an email to Karen News that it was assisting the victims of sexual violence. “This is serious accusation and we request that any refugees who believe they have not been accorded a full hearing to report through the established channels (red complaints box for letters that will be read by the Chief of Mission),” the UNHCR spokesperson said. “UNHCR has been working closely with other partner organizations and the authorities to strengthen the monitoring of sexual violence and the response.”
The spokesperson said UNCHR was also providing psychosocial support and facilitating access to healthcare and law enforcement to victims of sexual violence.
UNHCR claimed its policy for refugees in India was successful overall.
“UNHCR’s focus has been on supporting self-reliance and livelihood activities including vocational training as well as income generating activities to help refugees lead a life with dignity. This policy has been successful to the extent that many refugees are able to earn a living to support themselves and their families…Some refugees are under the impression that resettlement to a third country is the only solution they want to consider.” The UNHCR noted that less than 3% of applications for third-country resettlement were successful in India.
Rachel Fleming criticized UNHCR policy, however, telling Karen News that it ignored the realities on the ground.
“For the past 20 years, UNHCR has promoted a failed policy of local integration as the primary durable solution for Chin refugees in New Delhi. Chin refugees have always faced discrimination and racism, which makes local integration very difficult.” Rachel Fleming said.
Rachel Fleming warned that the number of sexual attacks was increasing. “The situation seems to be getting worse. For Chin refugee survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, they view third country resettlement as their only hope to escape the cycle of discrimination and violence they have experienced their whole lives.”
Impoverished Chin State, which borders India, is wracked with insecurity. A 2011 report by Physicians for Human Rights, an independent human rights watchdog, reported endemic human rights abuses in Chin State by the Burmese military. Of 621 Chin households interviewed for the study, 91.9% reported being the victims of forced labour – including as Burma Army porters and land mine sweepers – while 14.8% reported being beaten or tortured by Burmese troops or of experiencing killings and abductions of friends and family members. The report, titled ‘Living under the Junta,’ goes on: “One out of eight Chin households were forcibly displaced), and one-third of all forcible conscriptions were of children under 15.”
A PHR spokesperson said that the survey supported a case for crimes against humanity in Chin State in an interview with Karen News. “The data on forced labor as well as other violations supported the two prongs of the definition of crimes against humanity: that enumerated crimes were widespread or systematic. PHR found that reported abuses occurred on a large scale and with numerous victims, and that data revealed patterns of violations that indicated systematic targeting of crimes against civilians.”