A circular has been issued by the government of India directing all state governments to identify and begin the process of deporting Rohingya refugees.
Having been driven out by the military actions of the Myanmar government, a little over 60,000 Rohingya refugees have found their way to India over the years. Now, faced with moves to deport them back from where they came, they are living precariously in makeshift hovels, uncertain of what the future holds for them.
Media reports of mass graves of Hindus in Rakhine state, allegedly killed by Rohingya Muslims, have heightened their insecurity. Such unverified news, the migrants say, creates a sense of suspicion and hostility in the minds of the locals.
One such camp – christened the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya camp – is in southeast Delhi. Here, 24-year-old Rohima Khatun recalls an incident which, she says, left her scarred. “A few days ago I took my sick three-year-old son to a government hospital in the nearby colony of Madanpur Khadar for treatment,” she says. “There were a few other women also from our camp with us. We approached a nurse who was weighing children. Instead of helping us she asked us to leave India as soon as possible.”
According to Rohima, this is the only medical facility available to her and her fellow camp-dwellers. “This is the only government hospital in the area, and the staff here know that we are Rohingya,” her neighbor adds. Upset at the comment, Rohima returned home from the hospital without getting her son treated, and never went back. She finally got her child treated at a private clinic.
“We have spoken to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official about the incident, and are waiting for some action in the matter,” says another neighbor.
“Ever since the Indian government announced that it would send us back to Myanmar we are scared”
Around 850 Rohingya refugees have been living in Delhi since 2005, in four different camps spread over different parts of the city. According to the migrants, they never faced any type of discrimination in the city before on account of their ethnicity or nationality. “However, ever since the Indian government announced that it would send us back to Myanmar we are scared. The reason given, that we could be a security threat, is alarming,” says Mohammad Zohar, 25.
Ali Zohar, 22, an interpreter with the UNHCR and a global youth peace ambassador certified by the Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, a government body), says that whenever he is invited to deliver a talk at any educational institution in the country, a posse of police and intelligence personnel follows him.
“Recently, I was invited to Delhi University’s Lady Sri Ram college for women for a talk on our community. When I got there I saw a few police and intelligence people already at the venue. Probably they suspected that I might say something against the government. However they didn’t obstruct the event and in fact, were applauding my talk at the end,” Zohar says.
On another occasion, Zohar recalls, he was called a “terrorist” by members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student union affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was warned to skip a scheduled speech at the Aligarh Muslim University, in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. The event was eventually canceled. Zohar says the growing animosity towards Rohingya in the country is based on the assumption that Muslim migrants might be susceptible to religious extremism and emerge as a national security threat. However, he argues, the facts state otherwise.
“Every day one or the other media person comes here. But what we say to them is not being shown correctly. The media is also portraying us as being radicalized and a security threat”
“There are only 30 police complaints registered against the Rohingya refugees living in India since 2005, and all these are non-serious crimes. There are around 20,000 Rohingya recognized by the UNHCR in India. If we were extremists or involved in illegal activities, there wouldn’t be so few cases registered against us in the country,” Zohar says.
He adds: “In Delhi, there isn’t a single case filed against any Rohingya so far. Around 17 cases are registered in Jammu for border entry without proper documents, and some migrants were booked for oil pilferage from the railways. We are a persecuted community in search of survival and are grateful to India for providing us shelter.”
The media spotlight has not helped them either. “Every day one or the other media person comes here. But what we say to them is not being shown correctly. The media is also portraying us as being radicalized and a security threat,” says Mohammad, who is short and reed-thin. “Do I look a threat to you?”
There are no answers yet. The Indian government is keen to deport these refugees, but Myanmar has refused to accept them. Stateless for over ten years, the Rohingya continue to live precariously, unsure of what fresh existential challenges await, viewed as suspects in a country that no longer wants them.