Although the Rohingya community in Delhi worries about their families abroad, their day-to-day survival preoccupies them.
New Delhi: Gul Bahar, 32, escaped the Myanmar military’s sexual molestations and brutal murders a decade ago as part of the persecuted Muslim minority that calls itself Rohingya.
But Bahar’s life in Delhi has hardly improved. When her nine-year-old was hit by a car while ragpicking in Okhla, Bahar’s husband took him to a nearby government hospital for treatment. Six days later, he was sent home. The hospital had asked for identification documents and would not recognise the family’s refugee cards from the UN. He died that evening on the way to another hospital.
“He was suffering a lot that night,” Bahar said. “We tried to take him back, but no one could help us.”
World’s most persecuted group
About 14,000 Rohingya live in India, 1,000 of them in Delhi NCR, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Most came in 2013-2014 following violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in late 2012.
The Rohingya trace their origins to Bangladesh, and ethnically, linguistically and religiously differ from the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, which does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens though they have lived in the country for many generations.
The Rohingya living in camps in Kalindi Kunj and Shaheen Bagh tell stories from Myanmar of kids abducted to carry the military’s gear, sexual harassment and rapes, neighbours gone missing, discriminatory restrictions on travel within Rakhine State that impoverish their businesses, family members arbitrarily arrested and tortured until they pay bribes, and entire villages uprooted or burned by soldiers grabbing their land and livestock.
The UN calls the group the world’s most persecuted people. On March 13, Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, presented her report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for an independent commission of inquiry to be set up to probe the persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military.
New challenges in Delhi
Though Rohingya in Delhi worry about family abroad, their day-to-day survival here preoccupies them. Most live in jhuggis on rented land or land donated by local organisations. They drink unsanitary water from hand pumps, have sparse or no electricity and no toilets. Their education and skill levels are low due to Myanmar’s restrictions on their rights.
UNHCR in Delhi has been issuing most Rohingya refugee cards that prevent deportation, since India has not signed international refugee protocols and does not have a system to determine refugee statuses. But the services these refugee cards promise – primarily government healthcare and education – remain inaccessible to many in the community.
“Our situation is so critical,” Bahar said. “My husband is getting weaker everyday and cannot work often. My children are falling sick from drinking the water here and the medicines I bought from a clinic did not help.”
UNHCR considers access to healthcare a basic human right and works through NGO partners to improve refugees’ access to hospitals. One such partner is Don Bosco, whose volunteers include more privileged Rohingya willing to take patients from camps to hospitals and provide language interpretation.
Bosco staff declined to comment without approval from UNHCR, but a volunteer who has taken patients to at least eight different hospitals in Delhi agreed to speak anonymously.
“Everywhere in Delhi, in all government hospitals, they do not accept refugee cards,” he said. “But many times with serious cases like childbirth or surgery, they will operate anyway.”
The problem, he said, is that many Rohingya have limited knowledge of health, do not know the way to hospitals or assess the costs of services like transportation, medicines or foregoing work wages will be too high. Women often give birth in their huts without trained health workers. Recently, a baby died during such a home delivery.
Researchers from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative found three main reasons why Myanmar nationals in Delhi struggle to access healthcare: discrimination, poor quality health services and financial barriers. Of these, they found, discrimination is the most prominent.
“Some doctors are kind of racist,” the Rohingya volunteer said. “They say, ‘Why is India accepting such people? We have enough of such people.’”
The Rohingya this reporter spoke to did not know anyone would take them to a hospital for free or provide interpretation.
“We receive a refugee card but is this [the UNHCR’s] only responsibility or is it more?” Hafij Ahmad, 35, living in Shaheen Bagh asked.
Salama Khatoom, a 45-year-old widow, has suffered from kidney pain and difficulty breathing for months. She has not visited a hospital because the transportation would cost more than she makes in two or three days. Khatoom earns money ragpicking to support herself and three children. She struggles to save enough to pay her jhuggi’s monthly rent of just Rs 500.
“If someone delays to pay rent, the [Indian] landlord threatens to demolish,” Khatoom said.
UNHCR said it is aware that some Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers struggle to access social services and that resource constraints make it difficult for UNHCR and its partners to reach Rohingya in all locations across Delhi.
“UNHCR and partners are making efforts towards building effective linkages with existing government and civil society services in these locations as much as possible to enhance their access to basic services,” the organisation said in an email.
In Kalindi Kunj off the banks of the Yamuna, dozens of small children raced through the narrow corridors between shanties, weaving through curtains and adults’ legs playing chase. When the fastest boy would tire, the group would pounce on him and scream with laughter.
Zakat Foundation, a Muslim charity, owns the land and pays for 15 children to attend a private school. Still, most of the kids do not attend schools. Their parents cannot afford the transportation and school materials like uniforms. Instead the kids ragpick with their families.
“You can see how these kids are growing up,” Mohammed Jaini, a 21-year-old Rohingya who volunteers teaching Hindi literacy and English in the camps. “They have no future.”
Jaini left his family in Rakhine State at age 19 to pursue his studies past grade 10, an aspiration denied him by the Myanmar government. He works as an interpreter with the UNHCR implementing partner Socio-Legal Information Centre, which provides legal assistance to refugees. He plans to become a lawyer.
“We need good politicians and lawyers from our community to achieve our rights as Rohingya because right now, we are so vulnerable,” Jaini said. “Our kids need education badly.”
Every refugee child in India between the ages of six and 14 has the right to free public education under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. But according to the Rohingya, some government school principals ask for Aadhar cards they don’t have and on that basis deny their children admission. Other schools have accepted Rohingya children with help from UNHCR partners but because many Rohingya struggle with Hindi, the teachers separate them from the class with little supervision.
“The kids are mentally tortured,” Abdul Khan, 29, a Rohingya volunteer who visits the camps to teach, said. “They’re told by government teachers they’re foreigners and not welcome.”
The main challenge is transportation to schools, which many Rohingya cannot afford. Most of the women also prefer not to travel alone and rely on their husbands or brothers to accompany them outside the camps.
“When we were in Myanmar, we were not allowed to study and our life became useless,” Hafij Ahmad said. “Now we could send our children to school but we don’t have vehicles to send them and this makes them illiterate. I’m afraid my children will remain uneducated.”
Ahmad makes Rs 350 a day from construction labor, Rs 350 less per day than his Indian co-labourers on the site. He said often families must decide between teaching their children or buying vegetables.
And in the summer heat, with sparse electricity for fans, few kids want to study. Many fall sick with diarrhoea and fevers.
“We are so weak,” Ahmad said. “We cannot express our situation to anyone. The UN is here but they do not listen to us. It’s like we are unwanted here.”
All photos courtesy Delhi Photo Expedition.