Despite Claiming No Change in Policy, Modi Government Is Coming Down Hard on Refugees

Though the government has recognised UNHCR status for decades, they are now arresting people who have been designated as asylum seekers.

File photo of a woman washing clothes inside a refugee camp in India. Credit: Reuters

File photo of a woman washing clothes inside a refugee camp in India. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: Two young Sudanese Muslims are facing deportation back to war-torn Darfur if a Supreme Court judge upholds a Delhi high court judgment in a decision expected this week. The case illustrates a recent trend of attempts to deport refugees, advocates say.

Since January, lawyers working with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have represented six refugees in deportation cases: one Yemeni, one Somalian, two Afghans and the two Sudanese nationals, who are all Muslim. The two Afghans and the Somalis were deported. The cases come as the junior interior minister confirmed plans in August to deport an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees, a Muslim stateless group fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

“There’s a change from the earlier government with respect to refugees,” said Colin Gonsalves, founder of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a partner of UNHCR. “What is that change? I’d say if you’re black and you’re Muslim, you’ve had it. This is a racist government and a communal government.”

From the early 2000s until last year, similar cases only popped up once or twice a year, according to the HRLN, though the exact numbers cannot be measured since many do not reach the courts. UNHCR declined to comment.

The prosecution is arguing the Sudanese men are connected to militants and threaten national security, and that the government has the right to deport any foreigner. They also argue the men travelled from Bangalore to Delhi without permission because they failed to alert the foreigner office. India has not signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees nor the 1967 Protocol, which binds most countries from expelling refugees. Still, Article 21 of India’s constitution entitles even foreigners to the right to life and liberty, former chief justice J.S. Khehar said at the last hearing on July 10. After Khehar’s retirement, the case was transferred to a new judge, who has warned the Union government to no longer delay filing further reasons for the men’s deportation, as ordered in July.

Amir Ahmed Khmes Ahmed, 23, and Salih Ali Belal Eisaa, 30, came separately to Bangalore on student visas for college but ran out of money before graduating. After applying for long-term visas, each received an email from the home ministry ordering them to exit the country. Ahmed and Eisaa visited the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) to explain they are recognised as asylum seekers by the UNHCR. Though the government has recognised UNHCR status for decades, the authorities promptly arrested them, sending them to a detention centre in Lampur, in northernmost Delhi-NCR.

Also read: Kiren Rijiju Please Note, Deporting Rohingya Refugees Is Illegal Under International Law

“There seems to be an attempt by the government to undermine the UNHCR status in India, to say who are these guys, we didn’t ask them to do this,” Gonsalves said. “Now for them to say they don’t recognise UNHCR or their cards, it’s shocking.”

After learning their visas had recently expired, UNHCR issued them ID cards and advised Ahmed and Eisaa to apply for long-term visas.

The UN estimates the civil war in western Sudan has displaced 2.3 million people and caused as many as 300,000 deaths since 2003, from starvation, disease and violence.

Janjaweed militants supported by the Sudanese government attacked Ahmed’s village in 2004, destroying homes and killing his father and other relatives because they belong to a non-Arab tribe. His surviving family members moved to a camp, where Ahmed completed his basic education. Ahmed’s uncle in the US loaned him money to finance higher education and escape to Bangalore in 2013. By 2016, Ahmed left college with only Rs 25,000 and moved to Delhi to teach Arabic.

“I was lucky to escape death once,” Ahmed said. “If I go back home, they will probably kill me. What can we do? We came here seeking protection.”

Eisaa was 24 the first time militants attacked his village in 2011. They killed his brother and raped his sister. His father pooled money from selling milk and running an oil factory to send Eisaa to college in Bangalore, to safety. But another attack in 2012 killed his father, destroyed the oil factory and forced Eisaa to drop out of college. He stayed with Sudanese friends and earned by cooking for students. In 2014, Eisaa heard that his village was safe again, so his friends bought him a flight home. But the rumour was false. With militants blocking the roads, Eisaa couldn’t even visit his mother and sister in a displacement camp.

“At that time, I was hoping everything was okay, but when I went, I found nothing is better at all,” Eisaa said. “The situation in the camp is very difficult so I just hope they are okay.”

He flew back to India and later moved to Delhi to obtain asylum-seeker status from the UNHCR.

Ahmed and Eisaa have waited in detention for eight months already, though internal home ministry guidelines specify a foreigner should not be detained for more than six months without probation. The centre’s conditions are poor, with no blankets in the winter, no proper toilets and inadequate food. Any visitors must first seek permission from the FRRO, which may take a few days or for subsequent visits, a few weeks. About 50 Africans and a few other foreigners went on a hunger strike in August to protest the jail’s conditions and delays preventing their deportations home.

Earlier this year, a Yemeni man received a high court stay to apply for a visa with intervention from the HRLN. The FRRO has routinely not granted long-term visas to refugees and deported them without allowing them proper legal aid and counsel, the Yemeni’s plea alleged in January. The FRRO also at times does its best to block all attempts by the refugees or their counsel to access the necessary information and resources that would enable them to contest their deportation, he said.

Also read: With Death Threats and Arson, Life is Precarious for Jammu’s Rohingya Refugees

“India has been relatively alright in dealing with refugees, but suddenly you have a turn for the worse,” Gonsalves said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

Historically, India has resettled many groups of refugees, including Tibetans, Afghans, Pakistanis, Bengalis and Sri Lankan Tamils. On Friday, Sripriya Ranganathan, joint secretary for Bangladesh and Myanmar in the external affairs ministry, told the media that India’s long-stated policy on refugees and illegal immigrants has not changed, insisting that the government’s move to deport the Rohingya fits into that policy.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a plea from two Rohingya refugees challenging the decision to deport them back to Myanmar, where fresh violence has killed nearly 400 people in one week, according to Myanmar military. The military stepped up its “clearance operation” after Rohingya militants attacked border posts. In the past week, more than 70,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, according to the UN.

Meagan Clark is an independent writer based in Delhi.

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