“Since this morning, a lot of media persons have been visiting us, asking whether we want to stay in camp or go to flats. What should we say?” said Karim Ahmed. “We had no idea about anything till the media arrived here.”
Ahmed is the pradhan, or head, of the Kanchan Kunj camp in Delhi – home to about 220 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Last week, union minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced that the Indian government would provide housing and police protection to Delhi’s 1,100-odd Rohingya refugees. Hours later, the central government said there was no such plan, and .
When Newslaundry visited the Kanchan Kunj camp a day later, on August 18, residents were nervous and reluctant to interact. Women hid their faces and men avoided eye contact, while repeatedly saying they had nothing to say.
As journalists patrolled the narrow lanes, with camera crews in tow, one resident, Mohamed Ismail, told Newslaundry, “Nobody will speak here. Even though we respect the media, they show things differently. So, what is the point?”
He showed this reporter a video on his phone, of News18 India anchor Aman Chopra hosting a debate with the hashtag #GoRohingyaGo.
“We watch all news channels on YouTube and we know who is saying what about us,” Ismail said. “They call us criminals, terrorists, etc without any proof...Is it so easy to tag someone as a terrorist? Do you think there’s any need to speak to them? That’s why we decided to keep quiet.”
Over the last 10 years, thousands of Rohingyas have sought refuge in India. Approximately 18,000 live in India now, according to unofficial accounts. Over the years, they’ve been repeatedly by the media, and as “illegal immigrants” by the government rather than refugees.
“I have grown up hearing people call me refugee,” said Abdul Karim, 16, who came to India with his parents in 2012. “So you can understand the despair of those who grow up without any country.”
Yet Abdul Karim is one of the few residents who agreed to speak to the media following the August 17 controversy. If he doesn’t, he told Newslaundry, then who would?
“I believe we should tell people what we’re going through,” he said. ”Not only about what our parents or residents in the camp face in terms of earning a livelihood, but also about what we students face.”
Karim explained that he’s one of 72 students living in this camp. Earlier, they predominantly attended two private schools – God Grace School and Gyandip Vidya Mandir – and their fees were paid by the Zakat Foundation, a Chicago-based NGO.
However, Karim said, when the Covid pandemic began, the foundation stopped paying the fees due to a “conflict” with the school administration.
Due to the non-payment of fees, “many of us were not issued pass certificates and marksheets for the last two years,” Karim said. “No other school will allow us to enrol without pass certificates. So many of us opted for open schooling as we had no other option.”
But open schooling only applies to Class 10 upward, so younger children had nowhere to go. Private schools were too expensive, and government schools demanded a permanent address and Aadhaar card for enrolment.
“Where will we get a permanent address?” Karim said. “We are refugees here and live here legally. But the authorities were not willing to accept us.”
Ali Johar, a Rohingya activist, said the lack of documentation is a huge problem. “Since India doesn’t have a proper refugee law, the UNHCR issued refugee cards. But this is not recognised as legal ID in government institutions,” he explained. “Furthermore, the Aadhaar card is mandatory in the online forms for school admission. So the children cannot take admission in government schools using these ID cards.”
Finally, the camp’s residents approached a group of NGOs for help to enrol in open schooling, which also required a permanent address. The NGOs helped them file an affidavit with the concerned authorities, and got them enrolled. Residents were not sure of the names of the NGOs, just that they were affiliated with the United Nations.
Higher education is another issue. Students from the Rohingya community enrol in colleges under the “foreigner” category, which requires them to submit their passports and refugee cards.
“But we Rohingyas are stateless,” Johar said. “We don’t have a passport. So we don’t get admission in colleges.” A handful of students managed to obtain long-term visas from the home ministry, and so enrolled themselves in colleges and universities.
The result of these issues is a high dropout rate among Rohingya children, especially among those who were not born in India.
“Those who came to India after completing primary education in Myanmar face a lot of problems in adapting to the local language,” Johar said.
Further, most of these students lost two or three academic years due to the migration and the time taken by their families to settle down, leading to a huge education gap. “Many children lose interest in studies and become insecure about their futures,” Johar said. “Adding to these woes is the financial condition of the families – many leave studies to financially support their families.”
Which brings us to their struggle to find employment in the formal sector.
“I recently applied for a job but I could not get it as I don’t have any Indian documents,” said Sabber Kyawmin, the director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. So, many youths work as daily labourers, domestic workers, or e-rickshaw drivers. Kyawmin said some Rohingya youths working at factories in Aligarh were recently dismissed when they failed to produce Aadhaar cards.
But the local police is unsympathetic, believing the Rohingyas get “lots of aid” from NGOs and the United Nations.
“They never tell the truth,” complained a police officer whose jurisdiction covers the camp. “If an NGO helps them obtain a cooler, they take it from the front door and sell it through the back door.” He also said he often receives “complaints” about them from others in the locality because the Rohingya refugees are “involved in criminal activities”.
He refused to divulge details of these purported “criminal activities”.
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