The Long and Winding Road to Asylum
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, October 21, 2019
Magazine

COVER STORY

The Long and Winding Road to Asylum


By Tony Broadmoor/New Delhi NOVEMBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.9


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Burmese refugees in New Delhi have traveled a hard road in their pursuit of legal recognition. The agency responsible for assisting these asylum-seekers has not made their lives any easier. "The road for a refugee is only as long as you make it," reads a poster hanging in the lobby of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi. Outside, over 200 asylum seekers from Burma are protesting in front of the compound, pleading for interviews, for recognition as a refugee, and for a simple piece of paper confirming their status as a "person of concern", which would allow them to stay legally in India. Nearly half of the demonstrators say that their asylum applications have already been rejected by the UNHCR for unknown reasons. Others continue to wait for the organization to hear their cases despite arriving in New Delhi months ago. Asylum seekers, human rights lawyers and Indian activists say that besides the confusing application process, the mission in New Delhi also lacks accountability, offers no support system for refugees whose asylum status is pending—for over one year in some cases—and is trying to implement unrealistic programs of self-reliance for the refugees. To make the recognition process run more smoothly, demonstrators say refugees deserve greater attention and compassion from UNHCR officials. Moreover, they say the influence of the Indian government now pervades all facets of the refugee’s existence. "Without UNHCR recognition you are liable to be arrested at any time," says Soe Myint, editor of the New Delhi-based Mizzima News Service, an online newspaper covering India-Burma relations. The UNHCR in New Delhi recognized its first Burmese refugee in 1990 and now the city is home to the largest recognized urban refugee population in the world, including nearly 1,000 from Burma. The vast majority of the 13,000 recognized refugees in the capital hail from Afghanistan. But since 1990, much has changed politically inside and outside India, including the more engaging line New Delhi has taken with Rangoon. Also, the UNHCR’s budget is feeling the effects of year-on-year cuts, causing critics to charge that the organization is disengaging from the international stage. "The UNHCR’s problems are more than bureaucratic," says Indian human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, who has been working for refugee rights in New Delhi for nearly 15 years. "They have withdrawn from the international scene due to massive funding cuts." The New Delhi mission agrees that this year’s budget of US $1.2 million, down 20 percent from last year, is inadequate and that the cutbacks are having a direct impact on the condition of the refugees. They stop short, however, of acknowledging that they are gradually shifting the responsibility of caring for the refugees to NGOs. The most conspicuous effects of the budget cuts include a lengthened recognition process for asylum seekers and an increase in the number of rejected applicants, although some blame these problems on the Indian government’s influence over the UNHCR. During the wait, the refugees are at their most vulnerable as they lack money with no opportunity to earn an income. Their financial problems are particularly acute in New Delhi where poverty is already rampant among its homegrown population. Loom Na, 26, arrived in New Delhi from Kachin State, Burma in August and must wait until the end of this year for her case to be heard. Here, her fate is uncertain, but Loom Na has no alternative to staying in New Delhi as she faces arrest back home for her political activities. She now lives with nearly 30 other refugees in a one-room flat in Vikas Puri slum. Even as a group, it is difficult to pay the $30 monthly rent, and the protracted application process has only added to their financial burden. Some have resorted to scavenging vegetables and looking for handouts at nearby markets. "My security is very important to me," Loom Na says of her immediate concerns. "But now we are facing a lot of problems. We don’t have blankets, food or facilities." But the UNHCR says it is not their responsibility to provide assistance to asylum seekers during the application process. Instead, refugees like Loom Na must ensure their own survival. "They do what they have to do," says Wei-Meng Lim-Kabaa, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the UNHCR office in New Delhi. "It is not our concern. Except for their protection concerning deportation… they have to fend for themselves." She adds that exceptions are made, but that it is difficult to assess the needs of refugees awaiting verdicts concerning asylum status while providing for them during the waiting period drains resources. Sources in New Delhi say the Indian government has told the UNHCR to curtail the number of recognized Burmese refugees, an accusation the UNHCR categorically denies.


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