PETALING JAYA: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the Myanmar government recognises and welcomes the return of ethnic Chin refugees, although several Chin community leaders responded by sharing their reservations.
An email statement by the UNHCR regional representative in Bangkok to R.AGE dated Feb 26 announced that UNHCR has communicated with both the Malaysian and Myanmar governments about its review process in regards to the cessation of refugee protection for Chin refugees.
"The right to return to one's country is enshrined in international law. In discussions at multiple levels between UNHCR and Myanmar officials, the Myanmar government has recognised the basic right to return and stated that they welcome the return of ethnic Chin," the statement added.
UNHCR regional's statement comes after The Star's report on Feb 23 about the National Security Council's claims that the Malaysian government has not been "officially notified" by UNHCR about their plans to cease refugee protection for the Chins.
Alliance of Chin Refugees (ACR) chairman Mung Khat said this information by UNHCR was "unexpected" as they have not received much information on the cessation policy since its announcement last June.
"We had a meeting with senior UNHCR officials (in late June last year) but not any more since then. We don't have any information at all and don't know what policy (if any) is changing at the regional level," he said.
Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) programme director Sang Hnin Lian said although community leaders knew that UNHCR had consulted with the Myanmar government, they were not sure if these were multistate-level discussions.
"UNHCR was engaging with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, which does not have the power or authority over the return of refugees or to issue documentations such as household registration or national identity cards, as it is under the Home Ministry, which is military-controlled," said Sang.
"We had also requested the authorities in Myanmar to guarantee the safety of returnees and to provide documents for them, but they could not give a certainty."
The military still holds much power in the governance of Myanmar, despite being led by a civilian government since the 2015 general elections.
Falam Refugee Organisation (FRO) former president John Bawi Luai Thang highlighted ongoing concerns from the refugee community about the safety of Chin state, especially the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military in southern Chin state.
"While there is still fighting and so many refugees still running away from Chin state, if the Myanmar government and UNHCR agree that Chins should return, it is very wrong," said John Bawi.
"They have to settle (the fighting) in Chin state first in order for us to return, otherwise we will be victimised again even if we return."
He added that several Chin leaders had an informal meeting with the Myanmar government last December, but they couldn't decide on a solution for bringing the community back as refugees.
"The official said that those who want to come back can apply through the embassy in KL, as if we had illegally overstayed in Malaysia, but there is no particular agenda or amnesty for refugees," he shared.
The Myanmar government has not issued any public statement about the UNHCR cessation policy for ethnic Chins, and the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur has not responded to R.AGE's multiple requests for comments.
The UNHCR statement also expressed gratitude to the Malaysian government for "the protection it has provided the Chin over many years", and added that Chin refugees can raise concerns to UNHCR if they feel the need for continued protection.
"The (individual review) process has allowed refugees who consider their specific circumstances necessitate continued international protection have a right to raise these with UNHCR staff during individual interviews. To date, no single Chin refugee has been issued with a final negative decision," the statement read.
On June 13, 2018, UNHCR issued a community message announcing the cessation of refugee protection for the Chins by Dec 31 this year, citing "positive developments" in Chin state.
The global UNHCR policy affects about 26,000 Chin refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, including an estimated 4,000 in India. There are also Chin refugees in Thailand and Nepal.
The Star's R.AGE later reported an increase in mental health issues including anxiety, depression and suicide ideation among the Chin community in Malaysia, after the UNHCR policy announcement.