“What is our country, where are we from, where will we go; that is what I have to ask your people.”
As part of ‘Operation Insaniyat,’ the Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday sent relief aid to Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh following fresh violence in Rakhine State, which the UN says has led to the exodus of over 3,80,000 refugees from Myanmar.
Although Modi talked about “extremist violence” perpetrated by Rohingya militants, he did not make any mention of the massive humanitarian crisis that has put tremendous pressure on Bangladesh to host incoming refugees.
Many Rohingya have been trapped at the Myanmar-Bangladesh border since August. There are also reports that the Myanmar military is burning villages and laying landmines along the border.
Meanwhile, the future of undocumented Rohingya residing in India remains uncertain.
On September 4, the Supreme Court deferred a plea made by two Rohingya refugees who challenged the Centre’s decision to deport them to Myanmar.
The next court hearing will be on September 18.
“I would bet that the Indian government rhetoric about deporting Rohingyas who are here already may taper off…India would be seen quite badly if it said not only that but we’re also going to push out the ones that have already made their way here,” said Amy Kazmin of the Financial Times.
Deputy interior minister Kiren Rijiju had claimed that India would deport 40,000 undocumented or “illegal” immigrants back to Myanmar, citing security threat reasons.
However, the figure of 40,000 Rohingya residing in India remains unverified.
Citizens protest Centre’s stance on Rohingya
Around 300 people, including different civil society groups and individual citizens, took to the streets of Delhi on September 13 under the banner “Solidarity with Rohingyas” to protest the Indian government’s deportation plan.
The protest, which was initially supposed to be held at the Myanmar embassy in Delhi was shifted to Teen Murti Marg by the police for security reasons.
Jaffer Alam, a Rohingya refugee who came to the protest said, “Initially, I used to think that no one in the world would stand up for us but after coming to India, I feel like there are people who also support us.”
University professors and student leaders were also present at the protest.
Speaking to The Wire, Delhi University professor Apoorvanand said, “Our demand is only that the Indian government stay true to its traditions and the country’s tradition to offer asylum to all those seeking refuge who’ve been expelled from their countries.”
Regarding the response of Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised internationally and by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai for not condemning the violence against the Rohingya, he added, “Aung San Suu Kyi has not been silent. Three years ago she was, but now she is openly speaking about it. First, she had said that Rohingyas are not a recognised community and their claims to be an ethnic group is false. And now she is saying that the Rohingya crisis is like that of India’s Kashmir crisis. It is very clear from this that Suu Kyi has broken her silence and is openly supporting the violence against Rohingyas. ”
Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country.”
“India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations,” he added.
Ra’ad al-Hussein also denounced the Myanmar government’s brutality towards Rohingyas in Rakhine, saying that “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Human Rights Watch has also reiterated that the violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar amounts to ethnic cleansing.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Delhi states that there are around 16,500 UNHCR registered refugees in India. Apart from getting an ID card and documents issued by the UN, refugees can also get a long-term visa granted by the government.
The UNHCR statement says:
UNHCR has not received any official communication from the government regarding any changes to its approach on refugees and there are no reported instances of deportations of UNHCR registered Rohingya from India. However, some refugees have reported instances of harassment which were addressed through interventions of our NGO partners with the support of local authorities.
The principle of non-refoulment – or not sending back refugees to a place where they face danger – is considered part of customary international law and therefore binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not. In addition, India is party to major international human rights instruments such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Life at a Rohingya camp
It was a hot summer afternoon at the Rohingya refugee camp in Kalindi Kunj when we visited it last weekend. Most refugees were taking a respite inside the small, cramped houses from the mid-day heat. Some children played on the dirt road while the men had gathered in front of a small shop.
According to one of the camp’s residents, around 47 refugee families and a total of 225 people live on the small piece of land granted by the Zakat Foundation, an NGO in New Delhi.
It’s been about five years since most of the refugees at the camp migrated to India. Most of their journeys are similar. They left by boat to Bangladesh and then either took another boat or a train to India.
“It is not only my story, it is the story of many Rohingya,” said Anwar Shah.
“Nobody likes to leave their home and live in a foreign place. But the Myanmar government has forced us out and thus we were compelled to leave our country.”
He accused the government of forcing the Muslims to do heavy labour and then killing them if they couldn’t do it. Ali Johar, a young man studying at Delhi University, said that the Myanmar military also targets those involved in politics, such as his father, who was arrested by the regime.
Most of the refugees spoke of the violence they faced back in Myanmar and also that they didn’t know of or experience peace until they came to India. Many have also lost their loved ones in the violence.
For instance, Umaira Begum, who fled to India only three months ago with her husband, said in broken Hindi that her two daughters, aged four and seven years, were shot by the military. She iterated that information calmly, with an empty, tired look in her eyes. How does one respond to such tragedy? All words of commiseration would sound hollow in response to such heartbreaking admission.
The scenes at the camp were grim, with children running barefoot in the dark, cramped alleys, while the women were working inside tiny homes covered with metal sheets. There was a sense of desolation, yet the Rohingya were relieved to be in India, which represents their sense of despair and urgency to escape the horrors in Myanmar.
“We came with a lot of difficulty but we have received peace here. We were able to give our children education here,” said Mohammed Farooq, who works as a daily wage labourer in the neighbourhood.
We saw three young women carrying a load of books held together by a thin rope. They collect funds from family members and friends to help out the refugees. Though the children have some books and pens to play with, at times they have to find and carry sacks of wood to be used for cooking fire at home.
There is a new generation of refugees, those born in India, who will grow up with a wholly new experience of the crisis. They have never seen Myanmar. Will they ever be able to go back?
Having lived a few peaceful years in India, news of the government’s deportation plans has now made them anxious.
“Our life has been like a football since we were born. We get kicked out of wherever we go. What is our country, where are we from, where will we go, that is what I have to ask your people,” said Jaffer.