Rohingya in India rattled by growing fears of deportation
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.”
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.