10/06/2023, 16.17
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Mizoram refuses to collect biometric data of refugees from Myanmar

For the government of the northeastern Indian state, Chin refugees are fellow ethnics. As Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga seeks another term in state elections later this year, the refugee issue is politically relevant. An estimated 30,000 Myanmar refugees are present in Mizoram, the largest concentration in India. In Manipur, the attitude is different, following the orders from the central government in Delhi.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Mizoram, a state in northeastern India, said last month that it would not collect biometric data from Myanmar refugees, ignoring instructions from the central government in Delhi.

Last April, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed the Mizoram and Manipur, both bordering Myanmar, to collect data from what it deems are "illegal migrants".

Mizoram, however, which hosts the largest share of refugees fleeing the civil war that broke out after the coup of February 2021, considers the Chin ethnic group related to the Mizo, the state’s main ethnic group.

In government records they are also called Kuki and are part of tribal groups known as Zo, a term used to refer to the people who inhabit the Lushai hills that overlap the border between India and Myanmar.

India and Myanmar share an unfenced border of 1,643 km, which runs along Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km). The corresponding states in Myanmar are Kachin, the Sagaing region, and Chin.

People on both sides of the border with Manipur and Mizoram share the same language, the same cuisine, the Christian religion and the same traditions, although with different nuances.

In 1988, when Myanmar’s military cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, scores of ethnic Chins moved to Mizoram and remained.

Between 1966 and 1986, many Mizos emigrated to Myanmar at a time of political unrest between the central government in Delhi and indigenous people, who backed the Mizo National Front (MNF), an armed militia that morphed into the state’s current ruling party.

For this reason, the border has never been fenced and until the pandemic people could cross it into the other side for 16 kilometres for 14 days without a visa.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, head of the MNF, ignored past orders from the central government to close the border.

The situation is more complicated in Manipur. Unrest broke out in the state in early May, resulting in interethnic violence, due to asymmetrical sharing of government resources between the minority Kuki tribal groups (close to the Christian Chin group who fled Myanmar) and predominantly Hindu majority Meitei.

In Manipur, Myanmar refugees are accused of facilitating illegal drug and arms trafficking, although experts note the lack of data to support this claim.

In July, Manipur began to collect biometric data (eyes and finger prints) with the assistance of the National Crime Records Bureau; but a few weeks ago, it asked for an extension to complete the operation due to ongoing strife, which the MHA granted for six months, until 31 March 2024.

Mizoram's Minister of Information and Public Relations, Lalruatkima, estimates that the state, which has a population of just over a million, took in 30,000 refugees from Myanmar and another 30,000 from Bangladesh.

No biometric data have been collected from migrants on "humanitarian grounds," he told the Indian Express, adding that once it has the data, the central government will "push them out".

“The people who have come from Myanmar are our relatives,” Lalruatkima explained. “When borders were drawn during the time of the British, some of our brothers and sisters got left on the other side. This is the condition of the Mizo. When the military coup happened, they came to take shelter here,” he added.

The minister admitted that the issue is also linked to the upcoming election to the State Assembly, at the end of the year. “This is a political issue. We cannot make any move on this matter till the elections are done,” he said.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and his party are seeking another mandate and observers think the decision on refugees’ biometric data was politically motivated.

According to experts, recording biometric data of refugees has become well established in different parts of the world, and is certainly helpful for handing out aid, but it can also become a tool to violate the privacy of vulnerable people who have no way to oppose government decisions.

On one occasion, Human Rights Watch slammed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for sharing personal data of Myanmar nationals with Bangladesh.

The latter later shared the same data with Myanmar’s military regime in an attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees, despite the fact that Myanmar does not provide the necessary security conditions to take them back.


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