Myanmar Refugees on Indian Border Face Danger of Disease and Shortage of Medicines

By Rajeev Bhattacharyya 12 May 2022

Myanmar refugees in India’s border state of Mizoram face a shortage of medicines and access to healthcare, after being evicted from their homes in western Myanmar following brutal reprisals by the country’s military regime.

Almost 30,000 refugees are sheltering in Mizoram State, with the maximum numbers in the twin districts of Champhai and Saiha. They are mostly from neighboring Chin State but some hail from Sagaing Region.

Refugees started crossing the border to India after last year’s coup and village councils, church and civil society groups in Mizoram such as the Young Mizo Association (YMA) have swung into action to provide them with aid and shelter. Plots have been allocated for building homes and all essential ingredients provided to the refugees to settle down at different locations across the state. The government has also started issuing them with identity cards.

Despite the support, the refugees are still faced with the problems that confront displaced people compelled to settle in new locations.

Biaktinsanga, a member of the YMA’s executive committee in the Mizoram border township of Zokhawthar, said: “Diseases like malaria, flu and dysentery have been found to be common among the refugees. Medicines are not available in adequate quantity. Schools in this region also do not have the infrastructure to accommodate so many children.”

Located in Champhai District, Zokhawthar has close on 5,000 Myanmar refugees among whom 250 families have been settled at a playground on the banks of Tiao river. The supply of drinking water was a problem, until it was decided to connect the settlement to a waterfall about two kilometres away in the hills via pipes.

A greater challenge was enrolling the children in the few government and private schools available in the district. The families had no money to equip them with the uniforms, books and bags that are mandatory in the schools. Eventually, the rules were relaxed to allow the children to attend the schools. Last February, a total of 29 boys and girls were allowed to take the Mizoram state board examinations for classes 10 and 12.

It was primarily with the goal of assisting the children that a delegation from the Chin community in the United States surveyed the refugee camps. The delegates also aim to raise awareness about the situation in Myanmar at a global level.

“Our goal is to create a school system for the children, hire teachers and raise funds. And we would like the world to know about their suffering,” said Justin Thang, who was part of the two-member delegation from the US.

The delegates represent an organisation called Hope For Tomorrow, whose mandate is to build “bridges between the Burmese, Chin and American communities.” Currently, it is focused on helping the refugees who were forced to flee Myanmar after the junta’s coup.

The delegation visited several refugee camps in Mizoram, including the ones in Zokhawthar, and organised charity concerts in the Mizoram capital Aizawl to raise funds during their two week stay in the state.

“We will return to the US, share our experiences and then firm up the next plan of action.   The situation would have been worse if Mizoram had not opened its doors so warmly and offered assistance,” said Justin Thang.

Civil society activists are worried that diseases like malaria, which is widespread in India’s northeastern states, could spread among the refugees with the onset of the rainy season that lasts till October. A major challenge is ensuring the availability of medicines at the remote locations where many refugee families have settled.

In Zokhawthar, the Champhai District administration has carried out a survey of an alternate spot with facilities for drinking water and toilets, which they plan to move the families currently sheltering by the Tiao River to in a few weeks.

An official said that the new location would be at a higher elevation to prevent the possibility of the settlement flooding.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India

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