Ro­hingya in In­dia rat­tled by grow­ing fears of de­por­ta­tion

The Straits Times - - TOP OF THE NEWS - De­barshi Das­gupta In­dia Cor­re­spon­dent In New Delhi de­[email protected]

Chil­dren rock back and forth as they pore over the Qu­ran at the madrasah or Is­lamic school. A woman hag­gles with an itin­er­ant ven­dor sell­ing blan­kets.

It is much like any other day at this camp for Ro­hingya refugees in In­dia’s cap­i­tal.

But this be­lies a grow­ing fear among its res­i­dents – among the es­ti­mated 40,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims in In­dia – who worry they may be next to be sent back to Myan­mar.

This sense of fore­bod­ing comes as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gov­ern­ment bran­dishes its strong­handed ap­proach on il­le­gal mi­grants ahead of par­lia­men­tary elec­tions due in three months.

In­dia de­ported a cou­ple and their three chil­dren on Jan 3 de­spite con­cerns about their safety in Myan­mar. The fam­ily of five, reg­is­tered with the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR), had been jailed in north-east­ern As­sam state since 2013 for en­ter­ing In­dia with­out valid doc­u­ments.

They were the sec­ond batch of Ro­hingya to be de­ported since last Oc­to­ber, when In­dia repa­tri­ated seven Ro­hingya men.

The UNHCR, in a state­ment on Jan 4, said it “re­grets” In­dia’s deci- sion to repa­tri­ate the fam­ily, adding that it has not been given, de­spite re­peated re­quests, “ac­cess to in­di­vid­u­als in de­ten­tion to as­cer­tain their cir­cum­stances and to as­sess the vol­un­tari­ness of their re­turn”.

In­dia is not a sig­na­tory to the 1951 UN Refugee Con­ven­tion and treats Ro­hingya in the coun­try as il­le­gal mi­grants. Many of these asy­lum­seek­ers en­ter In­dia by sneak­ing past its bor­der con­trol au­thor­i­ties from neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh.

In­dia’s Bor­der Se­cu­rity Force ar­rested about 478 Ro­hingya along the bor­der with Bangladesh from 2015 to 2018, with 230 held in the first 11 months of last year.

Around 18,000 of the Ro­hingya in In­dia are reg­is­tered with the UNHCR, which i ssues them ID cards meant to help them avoid ar­rest, de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion.

But this brings lit­tle com­fort – or re­as­sur­ance – at the camp, where all its 240 or so refugees are reg­is­tered with the UNHCR.

“We are liv­ing with a grow­ing fear of be­ing de­ported to Myan­mar,” Mr Mo­hammed Bashir Ah­mad, 35, said when The Straits Times vis­ited the camp last week.

“What is the point of send­ing us back when con­di­tions that forced us to flee re­main the same? We want to go back but not with the way things are.”

Adding to their fears, the longterm visas of many Ro­hingya have

40k Es­ti­mated num­ber of Ro­hingya Mus­lims in In­dia.

also not been re­newed by the In­dian gov­ern­ment.

BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah has vowed to de­port all il­le­gal mi­grants, whom he likened to “ter­mites” at a rally in Septem­ber. When the gov­ern­ment be­gan col­lect­ing bio­met­ric de­tails of Ro­hingya across the coun­try after the seven men were sent back last Oc­to­ber, many Ro­hingya fled to Bangladesh.

“They are flee­ing to Bangladesh as they can at least sur­vive there in­stead of go­ing back to Myan­mar where they face the risk of be­ing killed,” said Mr Ab­dul­lah, 26, an­other refugee at the camp.

“The num­ber ( who fled to Bangladesh) could be as high as 40 per cent in some cases from camps in cities like Jammu and Hyderabad,” added Mr Mo­hammed Shaqir, 26, one of a duo who filed a pe­ti­tion in the Supreme Court to pre-empt any gov­ern­ment move to de­port Ro­hingya.

The gov­ern­ment, on its part, has ar­gued in the court that Ro­hingya are il­le­gal i mmi­grants and that their stay has “se­ri­ous na­tional se­cu­rity ram­i­fi­ca­tions”. This view has been fanned in par­tic­u­lar by the in­flux of Ro­hingya Mus­lims i nto Jammu, a city in the Hindu-dom­i­nated part of Jammu and Kash­mir.

Mr Mo­hammed Sal­imul­lah, the other pe­ti­tioner, pointed out that those sent back last Oc­to­ber were given “na­tional ver­i­fi­ca­tion cards” by Myan­mar, a res­i­dency doc­u­ment that brings with it a sta­tus short of cit­i­zen­ship.

“With this doc­u­ment, they can­not vote or move freely out­side their vil­lages and will not have other rights en­joyed by Myan­mar cit­i­zens,” he said. “If In­dia must de­port us, send us to any other coun­try but not Myan­mar.”

Though In­dia is not a sig­na­tory to the UN Refugee Con­ven­tion, Ms Meenakshi Gan­guly, the South Asia di­rec­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch, ar­gued that it is still bound by cus­tom­ary i nter­na­tional l aw based on shared prin­ci­ples of hu­man­ity that re­quire states to pro­tect in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing by not forcibly re­turn­ing them to a place where they are at risk of tor­ture and even death.

“What has been hap­pen­ing against them in Myan­mar has been deemed as a crime against hu­man­ity by the United Na­tions. It is a very se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion. In this en­vi­ron­ment where Myan­mar has not yet ac­cepted any re­spon­si­bil­ity for these crimes or pros­e­cuted any­body, In­dia should not be send­ing peo­ple back to the same sit­u­a­tion,” she told The Straits Times.

Ms Gan­guly said In­dia could have ad­dressed the con­cerns that arise from the pres­ence of Ro­hingya in the coun­try “in a dif­fer­ent man­ner rather than sup­port the rhetoric that ev­ery Ro­hingya is a ter­ror­ist”.

“Are all 40,000 of them ter­ror­ists? This is clearly not the case. It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the state to pro­tect peo­ple, not place them at risk,” she said.

“Un­for­tu­nately many i n In­dia have been mak­ing wild al­le­ga­tions about Ro­hingya refugees and the state has done noth­ing to cor­rect this ill-in­formed dis­course.”

ST PHO­TOS: DE­BARSHI DAS­GUPTA

Chil­dren study­ing at a madrasah in the camp for Ro­hingya in New Delhi. All the240 or so refugees in the camp are reg­is­tered with the UNHCR but they still worry they may be the next to be sent back to Myan­mar.

Mr Mo­hammed Bashir Ah­mad (left), seen with fel­low refugee Ab­dul­lah at the Ro­hingya camp in New Delhi, says they are liv­ing with a grow­ing fear of be­ing de­ported to Myan­mar. The long-term visas of many have not been re­newed.

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