Guwahati: Indian police bused seven Rohingya Muslims to the border on Wednesday to be deported to neighbouring Myanmar for illegal entry, officials and activists said, the first such move against the community.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, live in India after having fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar over the years. The seven men being sent back had been held in prison since 2012 for illegal entry into the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has described Rohingya ‘immigrants’ as posing a national security threat and asked state governments last year to identify and deport them. On October 1, Union home minister Rajnath Singh had directed all states to collect the biometric data of Rohingya “illegal migrants” for undertaking “action through diplomatic channels with Myanmar.”
Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, additional director general of police in the northeastern state of Assam, said that the seven men would be handed over to Myanmar authorities at the border on Thursday morning.
“This is a routine procedure, we deport all illegal foreigners,” Mahanta said.
But a UN human rights official said the forcible return of the Rohingya violates international law.
“Given the ethnic identity of the men, this is a flagrant denial of their right to protection and could amount to refoulement,” said UN Special Rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, expressing alarm over the Indian government’s decision to deport the seven Rohingya men. “The Indian Government has an international legal obligation to fully acknowledge the institutionalised discrimination, persecution, hate and gross human rights violations these people have faced in their country of origin and provide them the necessary protection,” she said in a statement.
She also expressed concern over the treatment and detention of the Rohingya refugees as the Indian government is obligated to refer Rohingya people in the country to the UN refugee agency so that their protection needs can be assessed and proper information provided to them about their rights. “I am also appalled over the length of their detention,” Achiume added. “Prolonged detention of this kind is prohibited. It could be considered arbitrary, and could even fall under the category of inhuman and degrading treatment,” she added.
A case filed by two Rohingya refugees, asking that the government be told to stop the deportation process, is currently pending before the Supreme Court. In October 2017, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre not to treat the Rohingya Muslims issue as a national security issue but consider it as a humanitarian and human rights issue. The Ministry of Home Affairs also said in its affidavit before the Supreme Court that India, as a non-signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, was not obliged to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement.
Myanmar’s government spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not answer telephone calls on Wednesday from Reuters seeking comment on the handover of the men. Last month, he said he would no longer speak to the media over the phone but only at a biweekly conference.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after an army crackdown in Myanmar a year ago.
UN officials described the Myanmar military’s action as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar has denied the charge, saying its military launched a counter-insurgency operation after attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants in August last year.
Rights activists in India have opposed the government order to send back the Rohingya and the Supreme Court is hearing a petition to stop the deportations.
“This is perhaps the first instance of Rohingya refugees being deported from India,” said Cheryl D’Souza, a lawyer for the petitioners. She said the court had agreed to hear the matter on Thursday.
(With inputs from Reuters)