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Deportation of Myanmar nationals at Indo-Myanmar Border in Moreh on May 2, 2024

Myanmar Nationals Who Fled into Manipur After Military Coup Remains Manipur’s Burden of Illegal Immigration

Amidst claims of Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren on May 8 without naming Myanmar that 5,457 “illegal immigrants have been detected in Kamjong district of Manipur and biometric data of 5,173 of them have been recorded while the deportation process is underway, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on May 10 asks Indian authorities to immediately halt forced returns of Myanmar refugees in Manipur and respect the non-refoulement principle. Manipur’s Kamjong district shares its eastern border with Myanmar.

Manipur Chief Minister Biren also said that illegal immigrants from across the border threatened the survival of indigenous people in the State and the Government will not allow it to continue.

“We have been giving humanitarian aides to all the illegal immigrants who were detected so far. Despite being an alarming situation, we have been handling it with utmost sensitivity,” Chief Minister Biren said in his social media post.

“In this crucial juncture, we have noticed certain homegrown groups, based out of Western countries, criticising the steps taken up against illegal immigration by giving a communal tone and propagating it as violations of religious freedom,” the Chief Minister said in his post.

“Ironically, this lobby is quiet about Western countries’ stance against illegal immigration but raises objections to the actions taken in Manipur, India. This selective outrage raises concerns about the agendas and propaganda pursued by these groups with secessionist tendencies,” Biren continued.

Earlier in Septemebr 2023, Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren attributed the violent conflict that erupted on May 2, 2023 with Kuki-Zomi militants attacking Meiteis in Churachandpur district and its neibhouring areas of Bishnupur district and other Kuki dominated areas to the free movement of illegal immigrants across the Indo-Myanmar border. Manipur shares 398km of Indo-Myanmar international boundary.

The violent conflict has claimed at least 227 lives including 20 women and 8 children, of which 54 lives in the first three days from May 3, 2023. At least 61,387 persons have been internally displaced while another 31 are still currently missing and presumed kidnapped or murdered and 1,559 persons have been injured in separate incidents of violence over the past year.

Notably, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren in the last two weeks has been posting on various social media about aspects of illegal immigrants in Manipur from neighbouring Myanmar. The Chief Minister said that the influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar led to the emergence of 996 new villages in the state in the past 18 years.

“The unnatural growth of 996 new villages since 2006 and illegal immigration from Myanmar is a threat to the indigenous people and national security. The immigrants have set up settlements by encroaching upon forest lands, leading to deforestation and environmental degradation,” a Manipur government report added.

The report also said that the immigrants have engaged in illicit activities such as poppy cultivation, further exacerbating the socio-economic and ecological challenges faced by the region.

In response to these challenges, the Manipur Government has initiated several measures aimed at addressing the issue of illegal immigration and its associated impacts. In a release issued by the state Home department in July, 2023, it was announced that the Manipur Government resumed its campaign for biometric capture of all illegal immigrants in the state from July 20, 2023.

Furthermore, the report said the State Government following the advice of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been collecting biometric data of the illegal immigrants and geotagging their settlements.

The measures include border fencing, enhancing security along around 398km Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur sector, engagement of indigenous communities, empowering them to safeguard their rights and interests against encroachment and exploitation and scrapping of Free Movement Regime (FMR) between India and Myanmar.

Moreover, Manipur Chief Minister said that 877 square km of forest cover in the Northeastern State of Manipur were destroyed in 34 years (1987-2021), primarily for the illegal cultivation of poppy, which has been used to manufacture various drugs.

Chief Minister Biren said that forest cover in Manipur was 17,475 sq km in 1987 and in 2021 it was reduced to 16,598 sq km, primarily for the cultivation of poppy.

The eviction of unauthorised encroachers carried out ever since the BJP government led by him came to power in Manipur in 2017 and 291 encroachers were evicted from the Reserve Forest and Protected Forest throughout the State, the Chief Minister said. It was never targeted towards any particular community, Chief Minister Biren pointed out.

In another social media post on May 2, 2024, Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren said, “Without discrimination, we have completed the first phase of deportation of illegal immigrants from Myanmar with 38 more immigrants leaving Manipur, India today through Moreh. A total of 77 illegal immigrants have been deported in the first phase.”

The State Government is continuing the identification of illegal immigrants and at the same time biometric data are being recorded. Let’s keep our borders and country secure, Chief Minister Biren continued in his post.

Meanwhile, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on May 10 said, “The Indian authorities’ forced return of 77 Myanmar refugees violates the principle of non-refoulement, and any further plans to forcibly return more Myanmar refugees must be immediately halted.”

“The forcible return of Myanmar refugees from Manipur violates the principle of non-refoulement under International Law as it exposes them to a real risk of serious harm, such as indiscriminate violence against civilians amidst escalating conflict in Myanmar, and the widespread and systematic human rights violations being committed by the Myanmar military,” said Mandira Sharma, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser.

The ICJ said that reports indicate that over 6,000 Myanmar refugees have sought safety in Manipur as a result of the deteriorating security situation in Myanmar. The Manipur Chief Minister has blamed “illegal immigrants” for stoking ongoing violence and unrest between the Meitei community, the Kuki and other tribal hill communities, and promised to “identify and repatriate them”, despite the lack of substantive evidence of their involvement in the ongoing violence in Manipur.

“The Indian authorities must immediately halt all further forcible returns of Myanmar refugees from Manipur and should instead offer protection and support to those seeking safety from serious harm, in line with the non-refoulement principle and India’s other obligations under international human rights law. The incitement of discrimination, hostility or violence against Myanmar refugees in relation to the ongoing violence must also be stopped and prohibited,” added Mandira Sharma, ICJ Senior International Legal Adviser.

The forced return of Myanmar refugees will expose them to a real risk of serious harm arising from the escalating conflict between the Myanmar military junta and resistance groups, with reports of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, extrajudicial killings, conflict-related sexual violence, conscription and forced recruitment. This escalation of fighting has included areas in Myanmar along the India-Myanmar border, such as Chin State and Sagaing Region, the ICJ said.

Furthemore, the ICJ said that the forced returns of Myanmar refugees breach the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible removal of anyone to territories where they may face a real risk of irreparable harm, such as torture or other ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations. The non-refoulement principle is the cornerstone of international protection under international law, including under customary international law and is therefore binding on all States. In addition, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), by which India is bound as a State party, guarantee protection against refoulement.

The ICJ is also concerned about the authorities’ mass collection of biometric information of Myanmar refugees in Manipur, including iris scans and fingerprints. The circumstances in which such collection is taking place are coercive and contrary to the principle of prior informed consent, which should be a prerequisite to collection. The ICJ is also concerned that such sensitive data may be used to carry out arbitrary arrests and detention.

The pro-democracy militia in Myanmar is fighting the military junta that returned to power in a coup on February 1, 2021. This instability has forced Myanmar nationals to flee the country and seek refuge in India particularly in Mizoram and Manipur.

The Myanmar nationals in Manipur are said to be mostly from the Sagaing Region, Chin State and Magway Region. There was no proper documentation of the Myanmar nationals who fled into Manipur after military coup on February 1, 2021. The Government seems not inclined to distinguish between the illegal immigrants and refugees amongst the Myanmar nationals who entered into Manipur.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of April 30, 2024 India hosts 86,100 persons from Myanmar, including the Rohingya have sought for refugee and asylum status in India.

Nevertheless, even after the Government of India has scrapped the Free Movement Regime (FMR) and accelerating the construction of border fencing, Myanmar nationals who fled into Manipur after the military coup on February 1, 2021 remain Manipur’s burden of illegal immigrants.

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