A Context of Risk: Uncovering the Lived Experiences of Chin Refugee Women Negotiating a Livelihood in Delhi.

Author:Jops, Paula


In India, the livelihood spaces that refugee women from Chin State, Burma, have carved for themselves in their country of first asylum remain relatively unexplored. This article focuses on Chin refugee women's pursuit of livelihood in Delhi in 2012-13. The concept of "livelihood" is a starting point to better understand the women's work experiences and explore the associated risks affecting their well-being. Emerging findings indicate that pervasive sexual harassment and discrimination, inside and outside of work contexts and a constant sense of livelihood insecurity severely affect the health and well-being of these women and contribute to diminished hopes for a future in Delhi.


En Inde, les contextes que les femmes refugiees originaires de l'Etat Chin, en Birmanie, se sont faconnes afin d'assurer des moyens de subsistance dans leur pays de premier asile demeurent relativement peu etudies. Cet article est axe sur la quete de moyens de subsistance de la part des femmes refugiees chin a Delhi en 2012-13. La conceptualisation des "moyens de subsistance" represente un point de depart pour mieux comprendre les experiences de ces femmes concernant le travail, et explorer les risques impliques qui influent sur leur bien-etre. Des donnees recentes indiquent que l'omnipresence du harcelement sexuel et de la discrimination, inherente ainsi qu'exterieure aux divers contextes de travail, associee a un sentiment constant de precarite, entrave gravement a la sante et au bien-etre de ces femmes, et contribue a des attentes reduites concernant leur avenir a Delhi.


Risk permeates all facets of the refugee experience. An individual's decision to flee and seek asylum in .another country is informed by risk and uncertainty, while being a risk in itself. (1) Refugees flee out of a well-founded fear of being persecuted and the hope that threats and peril will diminish upon arrival in countries of first asylum; however, this may not be the case, as new risks are frequently confronted when durable solutions are sought. For the majority of refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries, a durable solution, such as resettlement to a third country, is never found. As a result, they can either "integrate" into the local host community or repatriate back to their home country. There are 14.4 million refugees of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (2) and fewer than 1 per cent will be resettled. This means that, for many refugees, quasi-integration into countries of first asylum will be the only answer.

Refugees from Chin State, Burma, are among the nearly 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. (3) The spaces that Chin refugee women have carved for their livelihoods in India--their country of first asylum--have been relatively unexplored. This article adds an important dimension to current knowledge by uncovering the rich, lived experiences of the Chin women who engage in or pursue a livelihood specifically in Delhi. Despite the great hardships Chin refugees have faced before and after displacement, they are often ignored in the global media.

This article discusses select findings from a qualitative research project that examined Chin women's well-being and survival in India; we report on emerging findings from Phase i, which included twenty-eight in-depth interviews with Chin refugee women in Delhi. The primary focus will be Chin women's experiences and their perceptions of the risks they face engaging in or pursuing a livelihood in their country of first asylum.

The Research Context

Participants originally came from Chin State, a mountainous region of northwestern Burma. Chin State is an agrarian society with an estimated population of 500,000. (4) Since the 1962 military coup, which resulted in the overthrow of the democratic system and the introduction of military rule, ethnic groups from Burma have faced human rights abuses. The Chin face face discrimination that is due not only to their ethnicity, but also their religious identity. They are predominantly Christian in a country where the majority is Buddhist. According to the Chin Refugee Committee, (5) previous military rule resulted in widespread atrocities in Chin State which "led to extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture, rape, forced relocation, forced labour, religious persecution, and other violations of basic human rights." Women and girls, especially, lived in fear of rape and other forms of sexual violence as the military used "rape systematically as a means of control, torture and repression." (6) These crimes were often committed with impunity, as military personal were rarely prosecuted and crimes were covered up (7)

This milieu of violence forced many Chin people to flee to neighbouring India, mainly in the eastern states of Manipur and Mizoram, with hopes of a better life. Despite the recent election of a semi-civilian government in Burma, and a ceasefire declared between the government and armed Chin groups, the militarization of Chin State continues. It is estimated that 75,000-100,000 Chin are living in Manipur and Mizoram, (8) with an additional 8,000 in Delhi. (9)

Importantly, India has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. While refugees in India are not recognized under national legislation, the Indian government has an informal agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to maintain an office in Delhi to register asylum-seekers and provide limited services to refugees living there. Many Chin make the long, expensive trip to Delhi, as it is the only place in India where they can apply for registration. The hope of being resettled to a third country is also a pull factor (10) that brings refugees to this urban area.

In 2012, the Indian government announced that it would allow registered refugees to apply for long-stay visas, with accompanying work rights. (11) However, it remains unclear how many long-term visas have actually been granted to Chin refugees. Nevertheless, Chin refugees are still bound to the informal employment sector and work primarily in factories, domestic service, or small-goods sales on the streets. Refugees from Chin State are further disadvantaged because many have limited education and come from agrarian backgrounds, so their skills are not easily transferable to the urban context of Delhi. (12) They are increasingly at risk of exploitation and discrimination by employers, with refugee women at a heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). (13) In fact, there have been widespread reports of SGBV towards Burmese refugee women (at work and in public spaces), which often goes unpunished. (14)

The situation of Chin refugees in India is unique, as they are physically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the host population. This "otherness" and classification as "refugees" puts them at risk of abuse and harassment from local people. Additionally "their refugee status means they are doubly-disempowered, for they lack the protection of the state, the opportunities for free movement, and the surplus income to escape situations of violence." (15)

After direct consultation with key informants and refugee women themselves, it became clear that a participatory method of inquiry would be beneficial to explore the topic of livelihood and risk. Indeed, a lack of livelihood creates barriers to meeting several basic needs including health care, education, safe accommodation, and an overall dignified quality of life.

The Conceptual Frameworks of "Livelihood" and "Risk"


Understanding the influence and effects of livelihood opportunities is essential, as the concept is foundational and used as a platform to explore the complex, fluid, and often dangerous living situations of participants in this study. The bulk of the literature in this area is policy driven, particularly when focused on refugees. In these instances, a livelihood has a functional definition (e.g., a job, the need for food, shelter, etc.). Indeed, the idea of a livelihood is much more than "just a job." According to Gaillard et al., (16) "Livelihoods rarely refer to a single activity. It includes complex, contextual, diverse and dynamic strategies developed by households to meet their needs." While a livelihood may include money, it also "encompasses in-kind income, social institutions (kin, family, and village), gender relations, and property rights required to support and to sustain a given standard of living." (17)

Moreover, access to a livelihood is a right for all people, as stated in article 23(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: (18) "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment." This right is expanded upon in article 25(1): "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [s/c] and of his [sic] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

The many facets of a livelihood help one achieve a standard of living that is ultimately safe, sustainable, and secure to fulfil other rights with dignity. (19) At the meso-level, livelihood also includes "access to, and benefits derived from, social and public services provided by the state such as education, health services, roads, and water supplies." (20) Therefore, a livelihood is not limited to material wealth, but is also holistic and all-encompassing.

Providing a conceptual framework from which to understand "livelihood" in this article is fundamental, as livelihood experiences are used to delve deeper into participants' overall perceptions of their living situations. More importantly...

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