Myanmar refugees exploited in India given new hope

The Indian government will now grant long-term visas to all refugees in the country.

Muanpuii, a 35-year-old Burmese refugee from the Falam tribe in the Chin state of Burma, weaves using a hand loom in Vikaspuri, New Delhi.
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NEW DELHI // Ms Muanpuii, a refugee from Myanmar, has spent the past three years moving from job to job in India's so-called informal sector - working in a garment factory, then a creche. At the factory in Delhi, she earned 1,800 rupees (Dh117.8) a month - half the wage of her Indian co-workers.

"There were reductions in my wage but I was never told what they were about," said Ms Muanpuii, who like many people from Myanmar uses only one name.

Such exploitation by unscrupulous employers is common in India where refugees are not granted the legal right to work.

A decision by the Indian government two weeks ago, announced by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi on Tuesday, is about to change this. The Indian government will now grant long-term visas to all refugees in the country. This means that Ms Muanpuii and the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 undocumented Burmese refugees in north-east India should be able to escape the cycle of exploitation.

"We would like to express our appreciation to the government of India for its recent decision to grant all refugees recognised by UNHCR long-term visas," said Montserrat Feixas Vihe, the UNHCR's chief of mission for India.

Calling the move a "huge step forward" for refugee protection, Ms Vihe said: "Refugees will also be able to work in the private sector and access higher education, which is so important for the growth and development of any individual. We are extremely happy, this could not have come at a better time. We are grateful to and continue to count on our donors so that refugees can take advantage of this wonderful opportunity."

The long-term visas, awarded for one year at a time, will be renewable for up to five years. Previously, such visas were restricted to certain nationalities and they had to be renewed every six months. Iraqis, Iranians and Somalis and refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan had been denied these visas altogether.

Ms Muanpuii fled from Myanmar to India in 2009 in a lorry. The police had come looking for her brother, an activist working for the rights of the Chin people, one of Myanmar's many ethnic minorities who face persecution and discrimination.

Today Ms Muanpuii works for herself, she sat in the corner of a bedroom in Vikaspuri, north-west Delhi, working on a loom, making a traditional Chin sarong, while her mother watched over her.

The sarong is woven in red, yellow, green and purple cotton and silk threads - the colours of the Chin tribe. It will be sold for 4,500 rupees (Dh300). This is only money Ms Muanpuii will earn to support herself, her sister and her mother this month.

During yesterday's World Refugee Day, Ms Muanpuii contemplated joined her friend, Sawmte, 30, a community worker with the Burmese Women group in Delhi, to see an exhibit that highlighted the challenges these women face in Delhi.

Ms Sawmte, 30, is, also from the Chin tribe of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. She came to India in 2007 to escape persecution. "From time to time there is something that is called 'push back,'" she said. "The local government in those areas will come around, round up the refugees, put them in trucks and send them back to Burma."

Ms Phunmawi, 36, who was a primary schoolteacher in Myanmar, fled to India in 2007 after she was raped by a soldier who came to buy chickens from her neighbour. After she complained to the military chief stationed in her village, the soldier came back the next day, brandishing a gun, looking for her.

One of her colleagues sent money through a child to fund her escape from Myanmar.

"She said to me, 'go now or you will die.' I left everything behind," Ms Phunmawi said.

Ms Phunmawi escaped across the border in a lorry carrying pigs.

She left behind a husband and two children. Her husband died last year and her children live with their grandparents.

Ms Phunmawi is employed as a community worker with the Burmese Women group in Delhi, which helps victims of abuse among the community in Delhi, abuse that she says is all too common.

She said she would like nothing more than to see the women in her community gain access to more educational opportunities.

She welcomed the long-term visa decision by the Indian government, saying it offered hope. "If I could get the certification I need, I could go back to teaching," Ms Phunmawi said.