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Ground Report: Fire Guts Rohingya Refugee Camp in Haryana's Nuh, Over 100 Rendered Homeless

With the Indian government treating them as 'illegal migrants', Rohingyas end up living in deplorable conditions in cramped settlements, which have resulted in several fire mishaps over the years.

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Nuh (Haryana): Over 100 people have been rendered homeless after a massive fire broke out in the intervening night of December 16-17 at a Rohingya refugee camp in Haryana’s Nuh in the Mewat district. Among the victims are several children and women.

Since the time fire broke out reducing 32 shanties into ruins, residents have been sifting through mounds of ash to see if they can find any of their documents, ration and clothes.

The situation of women has turned dire, for they now struggle for privacy and battle insecurity. “My house was all I had. I would walk over three kilometres to go to a nearby mosque to be able to use the bathroom,” says Noor, a teenager, while doing dishes. “All my documents are lost. These are the only clothes I am left with. I do not know when I will eat next.”

Children at Rohingya refugee camp in Harayana’s Nuh after a massive fire gutted 32 shanties. Photo: The Wire

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up a desk to distribute identity cards to residents while some of them have been busy erecting makeshift bamboo structures. Others have been digging with hope through the rubble to find any of their lost valuables, utensils and scraps of clothing.

Also read: Massive Fire in Rohingya Camp Kills 15, Injures 560

Speaking to The Wire as he digs through the ashes, Shaifque says, “For 48 hours, ever since the fire broke out, we have been trying to find our valuables. Only now have we been able to make a breakthrough. We found one part of an old woman’s gold earring. This is invaluable to us – this is no ordinary earring, as it is not available in India and can only be found in Burma; it is a part of our legacy and identity, this is all we have left from our country.” 

Another resident shows his blackened hands, a result of digging in the dirt. 

A resident of Rohingya refugee camp in Haryana’s Nuh after a massive fire gutted 32 shanties. Photo: The Wire

Deplorable living conditions 

As Rohingyas live in deplorable conditions in cramped settlements, the fear of fire mishaps has always been there, and now even the contraction of the COVID-19 virus runs high. 

Nuh is the latest in the line of many such instances of fire mishaps. Since 2016, over 11 instances of Rohingya camps that have been gutted by fire have been reported. Previously, in New Delhi, around 56 shanties were burnt down at the Madanpur Khadar refugee camp on June 12 due to an electrical short circuit — the second incident of fire at the camp in three years.

In another instance, more than a dozen shanties of Rohingya refugees were gutted in a massive midnight fire in Jammu on April 5. According to officials, the fire had started in an empty shack and within no time engulfed the jhuggis within Jammu’s Maratha Basti.

Disproportionately bearing the brunt of these accidents have been women and children.

Children at Rohingya refugee camp in Harayana’s Nuh after fire gutted 32 shanties. Photo: The Wire

Speaking to The Wire, Arfa, a resident of the Nuh refugee camp, says, “I have no place to breastfeed my child; he is a toddler. We feel insecure and unsafe here. We did not get an education due to the same fear. We do not have clothes, and not even have a burqa. In our own country, they want to exterminate us.”

According to Arfa, the fire broke out in the evening and the reasons are still unknown. “We had no option, but to run to protect ourselves. All we are left with are the clothes that we are wearing. We are being persecuted all over – our bodies are burnt down, our women and children witness violence. Here we live in dire conditions,” she said. 

India has an estimated 40,000 Rohingyas, and at least 16,500 of them are registered with the UNHCR. Many of the refugees have been living in India since 2008 when they fled their home country, Myanmar, following a brutal outbreak of violence at the hands of the Myanmar military. In 2012 and then in 2017, the numbers of Rohingya in India swelled again after further campaigns of violence. 

Also read: ‘How Can a Human Being Be Illegal?’: Lawyer for Rohingya Questions India’s Deportation Plans

On March 6 this year, the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir detained nearly 170 Rohingya, sent them to a holding centre as part of a verification process, and said they plan to deport them. Myanmar authorities have also asked the Union government to return eight police officers who with their families sought refuge in India after the military coup. 

Amid the growing culture of hate speech against minorities, Rohingya refugees in India not only endure deplorable living conditions but are also facing violence because of their religion.  

Since 2016, extremist Hindu groups have targeted Rohingya refugees in Jammu and called for their eviction. A public anti-Rohingya campaign, claiming that they are “terrorists,” instigated vigilante-style violence, including a reported arson attack by unidentified assailants on five Rohingya houses in April 2017.  

Speaking to The WireMohammad Alishan, the chairperson of the Committee to Protect Rohingyas in Haryana, says, “We create camps wherein we can find space from the government. We set up camps with bamboo and cardboard. These materials can easily catch fire. This keeps happening time and again. We want recognition from the government. We want better living conditions.”  

The Indian government is also party to several international treaties which guarantee rights to Rohingyas, including the most recent New York Declaration. More importantly, the Indian government has consistently reiterated that they are welcoming of refugees and that they will always enjoy the support and aid provided by the government. 

Speaking to The Wire, Fazal Abdali, an advocate working with the community, explains, “Until 2017, Rohingyas were given a long term visa provision when the government made an announcement post which the refugee status of the Rohingyas shifted from a ‘refugee’ to that of an ‘illegal immigrant’.” 

Continuing further, he says, “Article 21 of the Indian constitution grants every citizen the right to life. Based on this, the matter was taken to court in trying to appeal for the rights and facilities to Rohingyas in May 2018. The Supreme Court had then appointed nodal officers. The government of India in its affidavit also stated that the Rohingyas have all the rights that citizens of this country do. Despite that, they continue to scramble for resources, employment, food and social security.” 

The Wire has also tried reaching out to the UNHCR, however, it refused to issue an official statement on the matter.