This column on April 2, 2021 pointed out the need for regulating the refugees who are entering Manipur from Myanmar after the military coup there on February 1, 2021 and subsequent unrest. It may be recalled that MHA on March 10, 2021 issued a strong advisory to Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland to receive only those who are absolutely essential on humanitarian grounds. It draws attention to MHA letter dated August 8, 2017 where instructions were given to sensitize all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt action in identifying illegal migrants and initiate deportation process expeditiously without delay.
It also refers that in 2018 MHA had issued strict advice to restrict illegal migrants to specific locations, capture biometric details, cancel any fake Indian passport and initiate legal proceedings. It also reiterates that States have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigner and India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugee of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. MHA had earlier on 25th February, 2021 written to the Chief Secretaries of the four states and the Border guarding forces including Assam Rifles to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent possible influx into Indian territories.
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The state government on March 26, 2021 directed Deputy Commissioners of five border districts of Ukhrul, Kamjong, Tengnoupal, Chandel and Churachandpur inter alia not to open any camps to provide food and shelter, CSOs should also not be allowed to open camps; but in case of grievous injuries medical attention may be provided on humanitarian considerations and people trying to enter or seek refuge must be politely turned away. It was further directed that Aadhaar enrolment should be stopped forthwith and the enrolment kits must be taken to safe custody. This instruction was however withdrawn on March 29 as it appeared that it was misconstrued and interpreted differently.
Despite instructions from the Centre, Mizoram regulated the flow of refugees and they have the number which has by now crossed 30,000 and with some more refugees coming from Bangladesh from Chittagong side due to unrest there the number had increased but the state has the details and biometrics of all those who crossed over to the Indian side in Mizoram.
Manipur failed to respond systematically and there was no capturing of biometrics of all those who had entered Manipur illegally. There is policy paralysis and refugees entered freely through the porous border, to escape the harsh political conditions in Myanmar. Due to COVID situation and the detection of illegal immigrants the state was forced to open a temporary detention centre at Churachandpur on April 1, 2021, which is reportedly now under IG (Prisons) but was practically run by some NGOs.
The number of inmates varies with time the highest figure being 52, indicating that inmates in the camp had on the sly left the camp and had perhaps merged with the local population. In a number of instances elsewhere illegal immigrants have procured fake Aadhaar Cards and some unfortunate ones have been caught. Most of the illegal refugees are either Chin or Rohingyas.
The reaction of the state government was confounding in that quite a few were turned away and were forced to return to a situation in Myanmar where their lives are at tremendous risk. The detection of illegal migrants can be somewhat enforced in Moreh or Churachandpur where the state machinery presence is better but with the porous border and with hardly any official machinery present at the border, it is impossible to check or stop illegal entry and the illegal immigrants entered almost freely into Manipur.
The failure of the state government to understand the ground reality is unpardonable which led many to enter surreptitiously and stay with their relatives within Manipur. The lack of clarity of the stand of the state government and the efforts to follow the Centre’s directives in contradiction of the ground reality have led to a situation where the state is no wiser on the total number of illegal immigrants who had entered Manipur on the sly.
The state government recently suddenly woke up to the problem and had informed that the DCs, SPs and the district machinery will be held responsible for any illegal immigration. This is despite the fact that there is no SoP for the purpose and hence the detection is unsystematic. The recent detection of 81 illegal migrants who had established a new village by the name New Salbung near Lhangcham village in Tengnoupal District came as no surprise and was expected. It indicates a very poor intelligence network as it took quite some time to come to know about the establishment of a new village.
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As the threat to life across the border is high and officially it is not possible to enter legally, people are bound to cross the border illegally through the porous border and the inability of the state government to understand the ground reality is disconcerting. Quite a few of those who entered illegally are involved in poppy cultivation as they somehow have to earn for their survival and involvement in poppy cultivation provides easy earnings. This writer had earlier reported that some who are working as labourers in poppy plantations despite claims that they were from Assam just could not understand a word of Assamese thereby inferring that they are not from Assam but are from Myanmar.
The policy adopted by Mizoram was the best alternative despite the directive of the Centre. A figure of 4,000 refugees in Manipur was bandied around in the discussion with the UN Commission for Refugees while those working in the ground indicate that the number may have crossed 10,000. This can change the demographic profile of a region and as many of the small villages in the border just could not support the wave of immigration, there is bound to establish new villages in the border areas, especially in Kuki dominated areas.
The situation in Mizoram and Manipur are starkly different. In Mizoram all those who seek refuge are welcome but their details are all recorded while in Manipur there is no data and most entered surreptitiously and after sometime will somehow enrol themselves as Indian citizens and then vote!
India’s signing or not signing the UN Convention on Refugees or its Protocol should have been irrelevant. As a human being when a neighbour is in dire conditions it is but natural to help. India is not going to do anything to dislodge the military rulers in Myanmar; but it needs to ensure that those who entered India due to political reasons and unlivable conditions are given some succour during their stay here. The lack of clear cut policy on the matter will make the administration difficult to trace out and take action against the illegal immigrants, except for the few who are unlucky to be caught.
It should have been understood by the state government that what benefits Delhi need not necessarily benefit Manipur. As an example for India ceding say 20 sq km of land to Myanmar does not have any impact overall but for Manipur it is a huge loss. As the situation in Myanmar does not improve with even aerial bombing within its territory nobody on earth can stop citizens of Myanmar from entering Manipur and Mizoram. And what should Manipur’s agenda be? It should be to ensure that all those coming from Myanmar are counted and biometrics recorded and they are kept at designated places so that once the situation normalises they can be made to return. Efforts need to be taken that no citizen of Myanmar reaches Manipur surreptitiously. The census data show that large scale illegal immigration had happened in the past leading to sharp increase in the population in the border districts as the number of young people is low. This has led to communal tension due to demographic changes and if this is not plugged, it can lead to unrest and even violence.
The state government had failed to look into the matter holistically when it started by meekly toeing the Centre’s line but now it seems that some realisation had dawned about the problems of illegal immigration but the steps to be taken is not easy as the settlement is spread all across the border areas. As there is some linkage of illegal immigrants with forest clearance and poppy plantation, WoD can be a twin attack on both poppy plantation and illegal immigrants. This is not a sweeping charge that all illegal immigrants are involved in poppy cultivation as many are earning through legal means like weaving, working as labourer, carpentry, house building, etc. The State Government must have clear cut guidelines on the matter keeping the interest of the state and its people on priority. Tough talk without substance has no meaning. Governments tend to disregard the dictum “A stitch in time saves nine” including ours, much to their disadvantage later.
(The views expressed are personal)