"The refugee situation on the western borders of Burma”


By Chris Lewa, Forum Asia, Bangkok


Delivered at the Canadian Friends of Burma Public Conference


Ottawa – 9 October 2002


Panel One:  The current situation



Burma’s borders with India and Bangladesh have received much less international attention than the Thailand-Burma border.   A major reason is the difficult access to refugees in these border areas due to policies of the host governments. Nevertheless, outflows of refugees from Burma to India and Bangladesh are no less significant.  More than 50,000 mostly Chin refugees have fled to India while up to 200,000 Rohingya refugees are found in Bangladesh in and outside refugee camps.


An essential difference appears when comparing the overall situation along the eastern and western borders of Burma.  In Chin and Arakan States, bordering India and Bangladesh respectively, there is little ethnic armed resistance and the military regime does not resort to ruthless counter-insurgency tactics to assert control, as is the case along the Thai-Burma border.   Therefore, the worst forms of human rights violations such as massive forced relocation, torture, summary executions, are less frequent, but this does not mean that the situation is noticeably better.  Over the last decade, the Burma Army’s presence has rapidly expanded along the western border.  The establishment of new battalions has resulted in two significant consequences:

-        (1) exaction of forced labour and arbitrary taxation on the local population to build and maintain camps and grow foodstuff for the army, but also for road construction carried out in the name of development, but which mostly facilitate army penetration; and

-        (2) military control of the local economy for the Army’s profit, either directly through collection of taxes at checkpoints and from the border trade, or indirectly through the granting of business monopolies on local commodities in exchange for high bribes.

These practices have severely affected the livelihood of already impoverished communities and compelled them to leave Burma.   In their host countries -- whether in India or Bangladesh --, most of these 250,000 people are not recognised as “refugees” but labelled as “economic migrants”.   The root causes behind this forced migration are ignored in order to keep the outflow invisible and to deprive these refugees from protection and assistance.  Meanwhile, the two host governments are engaging in negotiations with the military regime in Rangoon to enhance cooperation and improve economic ties.


Let me first address the specific situation of refugees in India and then Bangladesh.




At a rough estimate there are 50,000 Chin refugees in India.  Apart from a few hundred who came to New Delhi to seek UNHCR protection, the vast majority have taken shelter in Mizoram State and a small number in the southern part of Manipur State.


Chin State is a remote hill region inhabited by various communities belonging to the Chin ethnicity who are predominantly Christians.  Chins are also found in the southern part of Sagaing Division.


Forced labour, arbitrary taxation and lack of education facilities are the main root causes for flight.   Chins also experience many difficulties in practising their religion. The military regime regards Christianity as a threat to its control since the only civil society groups active in the region are linked to the churches. Soldiers have prevented evangelists from preaching and imposed restrictions on attendance at religious gatherings.  Christians have also been forced to labour on Buddhist pagodas and to donate money for Buddhist festivals.[1]


Chin refugees in Mizoram State have no camp to accommodate even the most vulnerable and they have joined the local labour market, in the weaving industry, on road construction sites, etc.  As undocumented migrants, their situation is very precarious.  While Mizos are religiously and ethnically related to the Chins, they resent the continuous increase of “foreigners”.   Chin refugees have sporadically been threatened with deportation, particularly during election time, when they become scapegoats for the various local political parties. In March 2002, the Young Mizo Association forcibly evicted Chin families from Lunglei District.  New elections planned for next year again raise serious concerns that Chin refugees might face another expulsion drive.


India does not allow UNHCR to exercise its protection mandate in Mizoram State where access is also denied to most outsiders.  As a result the Chin refugees receive little or no assistance.


A few hundred Burmese activists and their relatives facing persecution have approached UNHCR in New Delhi for protection.  Chin represent the largest Burmese urban refugee caseload in Delhi of about 800 individuals.   Even though most of them have been recognised by UNHCR as “persons of concern”, their situation in Delhi is also uncertain.  So far, UNHCR has provided them with a small monthly subsistence allowance of Rs 1,400 (about US$30) per person and even less for dependents.  But over the last couple of years, UNHCR has been threatening to cut this financial assistance in order to promote self-reliance.  Lack of education and employment opportunities combined with inadequate and cramped living standards make their lives miserable.  The Indian authorities have issued them with residence permits, but denial of work permits makes any attempt at self-reliance almost impossible and illegal[2].  Young Chin people often join Bible schools in the absence of other educational opportunities.




Refugees from Burma in Bangladesh can be divided into 3 categories:

-        Rohingya refugees in 2 refugee camps (21,500)

-        Rohingya refugees outside camps in the Southern part of Bangladesh (up to 200,000)

-        Rakhine urban refugees caseload in Dhaka (50)


Arakan State, bordering Bangladesh, is another remote region along the Bay of Bengal inhabited by two major ethnic communities.  The majority group is Rakhine Buddhist, close to the Burman in terms of religion and language, while the Rohingya Muslims are ethnically and religiously related to the Chittagonians of southern Bangladesh and are concentrated in the northern part of Arakan State adjacent to Bangladesh.


The Rohingya Muslims are the group most discriminated against in Burma and they are simply excluded from the nation-building process.  They have not been included amongst the “135 national races” identified by the government, and the Citizenship Law of 1982 renders them stateless[3]. 


Communal tensions are prevalent between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan.  While this can be explained from a cultural and historical perspective, such violence has been exacerbated by the divide-and-rule policies of the military regime, denying all rights to the Muslim population in order to allow the military to pose as protectors of the Buddhist community.  


The Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is highly restricted, as they need permission to travel even to a neighbouring village.  Their land has been confiscated to accommodate Buddhist settlers.  To date, the government has established 26 “model villages” of about 100 houses in Northern Arakan State.  Mosques have been destroyed and Rohingyas are routinely subjected to forced labour, extortion, and constant humiliations.  While UNHCR and its partners have managed to reduce the amount of compulsory labour by taking over responsibility for building local road infrastructure, this practice is far from being eradicated.  Forced labourers continue to be recruited for army camp construction and maintenance, sentry duty, portering, and especially for such commercial ventures of the military as shrimp farm maintenance, plantation work, brick-baking, bamboo collection and wood cutting.


Currently, there is increased repression against Muslims in Burma.  On August 1, the SPDC signed the United States-ASEAN Joint Declaration of Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism.  Ethnic cleansing policies against the Rohingya Muslims have been newly consecrated as an “anti-terrorist campaign”.


Bangladesh has been burdened by two mass exoduses of more than 200,000 Rohingya refugees, in 1978 and again in 1991/2.  In both cases, repatriation followed in conditions far from conducive to safe return.  After gaining access to the Burma side of the border, UNHCR supervised the last mass repatriation but its “voluntariness” was questioned by international relief agencies.[4]  At present, 21,500 refugees remain in two camps in Bangladesh without any durable solution in sight.  Repatriation has stalled for several years.   The SPDC has not expressed any willingness to accept them back, while most refugees do not want to repatriate to Burma until conditions improve to guarantee a return in safety and dignity.  UNHCR has recently announced its plan to disengage from both sides of the border by June 2003.  UNHCR being the only international organisation with a protection mandate, there are grave concerns that its withdrawal could lead to severe abuses both in Bangladesh and Burma.


The conditions in the refugee camps are particularly appalling.  They are managed by Bangladeshi officials and not, as along the Thai-Burma border, by the refugees themselves.  Primary education has only been permitted in recent years and capacity building for refugees is minimal.  Corruption and violence are common.  58% of refugee children suffer from chronic malnutrition, exposing them to disease and hampering their physical and mental development.[5]


Access to the refugee camps has been denied to new arrivals since 1995 when the mass repatriation started.  However, the exodus never stopped.  The post-1995 outflow is a constant trickle of repatriated refugees (“double-backers”) fleeing again to Bangladesh and newcomers who are either landless or have had their land confiscated.   Starvation prompted their flight but lack of food came about because of forced labour and extortion.  This influx seems to be encouraged and at the same time strictly controlled by the Burmese authorities, and concurrently it is rendered invisible by the Bangladesh authorities.  The local press reports that as many as 200,000 Rohingya are living illegally in slums or villages in the Southern region of Bangladesh. People living in a shanty town near Cox’s Bazar claim that up to 80% of their population comes from Burma. They are surviving as undocumented migrants without any protection from UNHCR nor humanitarian assistance.  The Bangladesh authorities refer to them as “economic migrants” and do not allow any relief for fear of creating a pull-factor.  In early June 2002, they declared that “it was taking all out measures to complete repatriation of the remaining Rohingya refugees by June 2003 and had instructed border forces to check further influx from Burma.”[6]   Over the last 2 or 3 months the outflow of new arrivals from Burma has again increased significantly due to high rice prices, devaluation of the Kyat, and the strict implementation of land policy.


Stateless, expelled from Burma and unwanted in Bangladesh, some Rohingya are relying on human smuggling and trafficking to look for better living conditions in Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Dubai.


The Rohingya plight can be summarised in these 3 questions a woman addressed to me during an interview: “Who am I?  What should I do?  Where should I go?”


The Rakhine Buddhists are also a neglected ethnic group in Burma.  The Burmese regime has always attempted to forcibly assimilate them.   They are also subjected to forced labour.  They are tightly controlled and taxed.  Whereas very few Rakhine refugees came to Bangladesh, many left Arakan State to search for income opportunities in the urban centres of Central Burma and, whenever possible, on to Thailand and Malaysia.  About 50 Rakhine political activists have been recognised by UNHCR as urban refugees in Dhaka.  Assistance from UNHCR was curtailed in 1998 and most survive in substandard conditions. 


In addition, I must mention the hopeless situation of more than 500 Burmese “released prisoners” detained in Bangladeshi jails.  Half of them are fishermen from various parts of Burma, but especially from Mon State and Tenasserim Division, who first came to Thailand seeking jobs on Thai fishing trawlers and were later caught fishing illegally in Bangladeshi territorial waters.  The other half are Rohingyas arrested as illegals in Bangladesh.  All of them have long ago served their sentence for illegal entry but could not be released because the Burmese authorities are generally not interested in taking them back.  As a result, they are languishing in jails, some for more than 10 years.


In conclusion, the western border of Burma and the refugees in India and Bangladesh deserve more attention from the international community, whether for capacity-building, humanitarian assistance or advocacy.  Canada and other countries should use their leverage to pressure Bangladesh and India into recognising and treating refugees from Burma according to international human rights standards.




[1] Images Asia, “All Quiet on the Western Front? The situation in Chin State and Sagaing Division”,  January 1998

[2] UNHCR, Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, “Evaluation of UNHCR’s policy on refugees in urban areas, A case study review of New Delhi”, EPAU/2000/04, November 2000

[3] In response to UNHCR, Secretary-1 wrote in 1998, "this issue is essentially one of migration, of people seeking greener pastures" [...] "these people are not originally from Myanmar" [...] "they are racially, ethnically, culturally different from the other national races in our country. Their language as well as religion is also different”.

[4] Médecins sans Frontières, MSF-France, “The Rohingyas: Forcibly Repatriated to Burma”, 22 Sep 1994, and MSF Holland, “Awareness Survey: Rohingya Refugee Camps, Cox’s Bazaar District, Bangladesh”, 15 March 1995

[5] Médecins sans Frontières, MSF-Holland, “10 Years for the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Future”, March 2002.

[6] The Daily Star, Dhaka, 4 June 2002 and The Independent, Dhaka, 4 June 2002