Rohingya Muslim refugees in Delhi: ‘Kill us here, we’ll be killed in Myanmar anyway’

With India keen to deport 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, the families wonder if their faith is why New Delhi is extra eager on showing them the door.

WrittenBy:Nidhi Suresh
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“Everyone around me was getting killed. It didn’t matter if it was man, woman or child. I knew it would be my turn soon,” 37-year-old Osman, who left Myanmar in June 2014, said. Fleeing from the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Osman and his family now live in a Rohingya camp in the Shaheen Bagh area of New Delhi.

Osman recounts that the journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh by boat was fairly undisturbed but as soon as they reached Bangladesh, which was strictly not accepting any Rohingya community members, the Bangladeshi police began assaulting them and asking them to leave. Osman and his family, who had decided to move to India when they left Myanmar, were forced to take a detour through the jungles to cross the India-Bangladesh border. After walking through the jungles for 8-10 days, they reached Kolkata. In Kolkata, Osman, who couldn’t speak Hindi or English, took a train to the first place he could pronounce properly – Delhi.

In Delhi, he and 12 other Rohingya Muslim families who settled down in Shaheen Bagh, began working as rag-pickers.  Today the camp is home to 74 Rohingya Muslim families. Osman is their community leader. He works as a rag-picker as well as a part-time auto rickshaw driver. On some good days, he makes Rs 300 and, on others, nothing at all.

The lanes leading to the camp is littered with garbage. The camp has about 50 shacks, each 10 feet long and wide. Most of the families live on a shoestring budget of about Rs 5000- 6000 per month. Electricity is unreliable, water is scarce and the camp is infested with flies and insects.

Despite all this, the Rohingyas here would rather stay in India as the situation in Myanmar has only gotten worse over the years. On August 31, 2017, the Human Rights Watch, through a satellite image, identified that 700 buildings were burned down by the Myanmar government in the state of Rakhine.

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A Human Rights Watch satellite image of 700 burning buildings in Rakhine state of Myanmar.

Rohingyas in India

The presence of Rohingya Muslims has been a contentious issue ever since their arrival in India. But now things are beginning to look more worrisome for the community. On August 9, 2017, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told Parliament that the central government had directed state authorities to identify and deport ‘illegally staying foreign nationals’, including the Rohingyas.

According to Rijiju, the recognition provided to Rohingyas by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India is irrelevant because New Delhi is not a signatory to the refugee convention.

On its part, the UNHCR has registered an estimated 16,500 Rohingyas in India and as per the non-refoulement note, which protects refugees from being sent back to a place where they are under threat, should be considered part of international law which binds all states whether they have signed the refugee convention or not.

To contest the Centre’s decision, two Rohingya refugees, who are registered and recognised by the UNHCR in India, along with advocate Prashant Bhushan filed a writ petition under Article 32 (provision where individuals may seek redressal for the violation of their fundamental rights) demanding that the Supreme Court declare that the community would permanently be protected against deportation from India.

While the hearing for the petition has been posted for September 11, 2017, Bhushan sought assurance from the Supreme Court that during the waiting period of the petition, the Centre will not take any steps to deport the refugees. On September 4, 2017, the court said no such assurance can be given.

On hearing about the recent developments, the Rohingya Muslims in Osman’s camp are scared that they might be left homeless yet again. Osman says that after spending a lot of time and effort to gain refugee status in India, he is unwilling to be considered an illegal immigrant. “If you want to send us back so badly, convince the Myanmar Government to accept us as citizens of our land. Or else just gather us and kill us here itself instead of sending us back,” he said.

The developments come at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day bilateral visit to Myanmar is on. With the bilateral trade between India and Myanmar currently at $2.2 billion, Myanmar is an important trade partner for India. New Delhi has also invested in government-funded infrastructure projects in Myanmar. A trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand is also expected to be the focus of the dialogue between India and Myanmar during the PM’s visit.

‘Why only Rohingya?’

Ali Johar, president of the Rohingya Literacy Program and a volunteer at the UNHCR implementation programme, who is a Rohingya refugee himself, claims those communities who are forced out of their home country cannot be called ‘illegal immigrants/foreign nationals’ in another country.

“Even if we consider ourselves illegal immigrants like Rijiju claimed we are, why has this become only about the Rohingya community?” asked Johar. India is also home to Somali, Afghani, Pakistani Hindu, Chin, Mizo, Bhutanese refugees, yet when Rijiju said ‘illegal foreign nationals’ all eyes went only to the Rohingya Muslim community in India.

Johar said the anti-Rohingya rhetoric was linked to improve India’s diplomatic relations with Myanmar.

Nevertheless, according to Johar, if Myanmar would grant them citizenship they would be more than happy to go back. “Without a citizenship assurance from Myanmar, if India intends to send us back without proper procedure they must know that this will be a huge violation of international law and human rights,” said Johar.

Yesterday at a briefing of the North East Democratic Alliance, Kiren Rijiju responded to the ‘harsh and unnecessary critique from human rights organisations’ and said whether the Rohingyas are registered under the UNHCR or not, they are illegal immigrants in India and as per law, they stand to be deported. He has also previously stated that the humanitarian groups must not attempt to ‘demonise’ India and that New Delhi does not intend to ‘throw’ the Rohingyas into the ‘ocean’ or ‘shoot’ them dead but intends to follow protocol and deport them.

When Newslaundry contacted Nalin Kohli, a BJP spokesperson, he supported Rijiju by saying, “Our stand on the Rohingya Muslims is very clear – they must be deported at the earliest. India has had a bad track record of illegal immigration for far too long. The Rohingya community can go to any other country which is a signatory to the Refugee Convention.” When asked why the focus is only on the Rohingya Muslim community and not any other ‘illegal foreign nationals’, Kohli said, “It has to start somewhere. Moreover, we’ve been informed that some members of their community are involved with terrorist activities and might soon pose a threat to India.”

Ali Johar said if India intends to deport the Rohingya Muslims without an assurance from Myanmar for citizenship, India must remember that they will be putting the lives of 40,000 Rohingyas in danger. “Plus, there is no doubt that the Myanmar government is simply going to wipe us out,” he said.

Who are the Rohingyas?

The self-identified distinct ethnic group locate the state of Rakhine in Myanmar as their home. Successive governments continue to reject this claim and exclude Rohingya from the list of 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. This has rendered the Rohingya community stateless and vulnerable to violence.  As a Muslim community with a Bangladeshi dialect, the Buddhist majority Myanmar government has often said that the Rohingya are Bangladeshis or ‘Bengalis’. Of the 1,200,000 displaced Rohingyas, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 are living in Bangladesh where they have been denied refugee status.

The 40,000 Rohingya in India have settled across the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan.

The United Nations Refugee Agency places the Rohingya community among the “the most vulnerable groups of the forcibly displaced”. They are also known as one of the most persecuted groups in South Asia.

The Myanmar government has been accused of ethnic cleansing with regard to the Rohingya Muslims.  The International State Crime Initiative released a report in 2015, which accused Myanmar of genocidal attitude towards the community. Myanmar has remained consistent in its effort of mass annihilation of the Rohingya community through the use of brute violence, mass murder, destruction of property and rape.

Most Rohingya Muslims in the Shaheen Bagh camp in Delhi still have family members who didn’t flee Myanmar, mostly the old and weak. Mohammad Ismail, who lives with his wife and two children in the camp, said his in-laws are still in Myanmar. In the last month after the increase in violent clashes between the government and rebel groups in Rakhine, Ismail and everyone in the camp have been unable to get in touch with anyone from their village. “It’s been a month since I spoke to my in-laws. They used to regularly send us pictures of what was happening there and let us know they’re alive. Now we are constantly wondering if they got shot or burned down. I heard that our village itself was on fire. Hopefully, they fled to the jungles,” said Ismail.

The author can be contacted on Twitter at @nidhisuresh02.


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