Rohingya refugees in India fear 'illegal' deportation to Myanmar

Rohingya refugees in India fear 'illegal' deportation to Myanmar
Indian lawmakers say they want to deport all unregistered migrants, but Rohingya refugees fear death if they are returned to Myanmar.
6 min read
07 September, 2017
Muslims in Kolkata protest the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar [AFP]
The Indian prime minister spoke in support of the Myanmar militia in their fight against the Rohingya at the end of his first bilateral visit to Myanmar on Thursday.

Narendra Modi's state visit took place amid a backdrop of escalating violence in the restive state of Rakhine, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled state-sponsored violence.

"We are partners in your concerns over the loss of lives of security forces and innocent people due to the extremist violence in Rakhine state," Modi said.

An estimated 400 people have been reported killed in Rakhine, triggering a mass exodus of Rohingya civilians to neighbouring Bangladesh - reportedly receiving around 125,000 people in just two weeks.

The violence has led to calls for a ceasefire from the international community, citing fears over ethnic tensions. Myanmar has denied claims of ethnic cleansing, blaming the violence instead on "terrorist" Rohingya militants.

Modi echoed many of Myanmar's views during his visit. On Wednesday, he said India shared concerns over "extremist violence" in Rakhine.

"When it comes to a big peace process, we hope that all stakeholders can work together towards finding a solution," Modi said in his joint press statement with Suu Kyi after the talks.

During Modi's speech, a large group of Rohingya refugees in India gathered for a protest at Jantar Mantar, located in the heart of the Indian capital, New Delhi. Together they chanted slogans such as "Stop the genocide" and "UN, break your silence", while marching through the capital.

There are 14,000 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR in India and more than 40,000 Rohingyas unregistered

The treatment of the Rohingya in India is also a cause of major concern. There are 14,000 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR in India and more than 40,000 Rohingyas unregistered.

Kiren Rijiju, India's minister of state for home affairs, said on Tuesday: "I want to tell the international organisations whether the Rohingya are registered under the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) or not.

"They are illegal immigrants in India and as per law they stand to be deported."

The Ministry for Home Affairs has sent a letter to each state government, asking them to identify all "illegal migrants" - including Rohingya refugees - in preparation for deportation.

The letter said refugees were a serious threat to security "as illegal migrants are prone to recruitment by terrorist organisations."

Yet some lawyers argue this decision could prove illegal under international law. Colin Gonsalves, a senior Indian Supreme Court lawyer and a human rights activist, told The New Arab: "Deporting these migrants is not only unfair but illegal.

"Refugees can't be deported because of the international principle of no-return. That principle is also a part of the Indian constitution and so they therefore have a right to remain."

India is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 Protocol, and does not have a national refugee protection framework. This has created a grey area for refugees in India and many Rohingya civilians told The New Arab of their fears of deportation.

"Our people are being killed back in Burma. It's obvious we will meet the same fate if we are deported," said Ali Johar, a refugee in New Delhi.

"India is a country with a rich diversity of culture, religion and race. We are thankful to the Indian government that gave us refuge up to now - but they should also look after us now compassionately."

Our people were killed and our girls were raped. We are helpless and fear going back to Myanmar

"We and our community members fled from Myanmar to save ourselves. Our people were killed and our girls were raped. We are helpless and fear going back to Myanmar," Mohammed Rafeeq, a refugee in New Delhi, told The New Arab.

The United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) places the Rohingya among the "the most vulnerable groups of the forcibly displaced", having been subjected to some of the worst kind of violence by Myanmar's Buddhist majority.

The UN has characterised them as "stateless entities" in its most recent report, as the Myanmar government doesn't recognise them as one of the ethnic groups of the country. As a result of this label - or lack thereof - they have been denied any legal protection by the government and are regarded as refugees from Bangladesh - facing strong hostility in Myanmar.

Many of these refugees - having fled Myanmar - are now currently living in camps in a number of Indian states, including Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan.

Those who have taken asylum in India are mostly engaged manual labour including rickshaw-pulling and construction. The camps in which they live lack basic amenities including clean water, healthcare and education - but the majority are forced to put up with these conditions out of a fear for their life.

Earlier this year, a number of Rohingya refugees were threatened in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir - frequently an area of hostility between the Muslim and Hindu populations.

A right-wing political party had put up hoardings across Jammu city, asking its residents to "clean" the city of Bangladeshi Muslims and Rohingya. Bearing the photographs of right-wing political leaders, the hoardings read: "Let all Jammuites unite to save the history, culture and identity of the Dogras [a native Hindu community in Jammu province]".

The campaign was taken as an indicator of the growing anti-Rohingya sentiment across the country.

In another statement in April this year, a local body of traders and industries in Jammu warned of a campaign to "identify and kill" Rohingyas if the government did not deport them first. They were also called "criminals and drug traffickers disowned by their own country".

This violence and suspicion can be found in many other parts of India.

"In recent weeks there have been attacks on Rohingyas at various places in the neighbouring states of New Delhi," Abdul Hameed (name changed on request), a teacher in a New Delhi refugee camp, told The New Arab.

"We are being looked upon with suspicion. Indians are gracious enough to accommodate us - but once they stop caring for us, we fear it may turn into another Burma for our community."

There are seemingly endless tales of suffering and loss looming large in refugee camps across India. Many have lost family members, while others have left loved ones behind in Myanmar.

"We are very much worried for our relatives back home. No one knows if they are safe, as we hear in the news that they are being subjected to starvation. It's really painful," Abdul said.

While international pressure over the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims is mounting on Suu Kyi, attention is required to see how India reflects on the changing dynamics created by chaos in Myanmar. Clearly the Rohingya who had fled to safety to India are foreseeing tough times ahead.

Aijaz Nazir is a freelance journalist from India. He has been published in Tehelka, Firstpost, Huffington Post and the Asia Times Online.