Posts Tagged ‘Rohingyas in India

India is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries. Why then is the home ministry being particularly tough on Myanmar’s Rohingyas? Sonia Sarkar finds out

  • NOBODY’S PEOPLE: (Above) Raheema Khatoon with her children; the Delhi slum (below), home to Rohingyas refugees; (last) Mohammed Haroon in his shop. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

They don’t speak their mother tongue – Rohingya – anymore, but Hindi. The men have exchanged their longyis for trousers and the women their thains for the salwar-kameez. What is more, these traditional rice-eaters are now learning to enjoy their rotis.

“We have learnt many new things here because we want to be one of the locals,” says Fayaz Ahmed, a daily wager. Ahmed is one of the 220 Rohingyas who set up home in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar slum five years ago, after fleeing their homeland fearing persecution by the Myanmarese Army and radical Buddhists.

Since 1992, Rohingyas – Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar – have been routinely ostracised by Myanmarese forces. The attacks intensified in 2012, and even after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in 2015, not much changed. Fearing persecution, Rohingyas continue to migrate to India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

All very well, except that the Indian government has suddenly decided to wind back the hospitable neighbour act. And that notwithstanding the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants it swore by last September, the same that vowed commitment to “combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination” against refugees and migrants.

Apart from those living in Delhi, there is a sizeable Rohingya population – around 6,000 – in Jammu. According to an estimate, there are over 40,000 Rohingyas living across the country.

Rohingyas have always been regarded with a little suspicion. Intelligence agencies claim they are involved in drug trafficking in the Northeast and also raise funds for terror activities. Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed’s exhibition of empathy and offer to radicalise more people from the community hasn’t helped their case.

Lately, hate campaigns and demonstrations against the Jammu Rohingyas have intensified. The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in fact, declared that they would be “identified and killed”. There was not a word from the government against such a diktat. In fact, a fortnight ago, the union home ministry said Rohingyas in India would be identified and deported, an exercise that will begin with Jammu and cover the rest of India eventually.

Taslima Khatoon is one of those facing the wrath of the locals in Jammu. She sounds distraught while speaking to The Telegraph over phone. “Unknown people come and threaten us, ask us to leave. I don’t know where to go,” she says.

Her sister, Raheema, who lives in Delhi, is in similar panic. Both sisters have their respective refugee cards issued to 14,000 Rohingyas in India by the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and stay visas issued by the home ministry’s Bureau of Immigration. But these won’t be of any help, it seems. “We don’t recognise the refugee cards issued by UNHCR,” says a senior home ministry official who does not want to be identified. “We will not issue or renew stay visas to the Rohingyas anymore.”

But why this sudden anti-Rohingya sentiment? There is a theory that they are mistaken for Bangladeshi Muslims – both speak similar sounding Bengali dialects. “In India, there is a great fear of mass Bangladeshi Muslim immigration and this appears to have become linked with Rohingya refugees in a problematic way,” says Kirsten McConnachie, who is a Rohingya specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Law.

Rohingyas understand this. “We do not speak in our language because locals think we are Bangladeshis. We don’t want to do anything that will make us look like them,” says Mohammed Haroon, a shopkeeper.

They are doing their best to integrate with their adoptive country. A group of boys in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh have started their own football team, Rohingya Shining Stars. Over 65 Rohingya children of Madanpur Khadar are going to a nearby private English medium school. “We want to be one of you. We want to be equal,” says Ameena Khatoon, whose children started going to school only after they came to India.

But their problems might yet remain; the status of refugees is governed by political discretion and not by any codified model of conduct. So you have acres of agricultural land earmarked for Tibetans in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala; designated camps set up in Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan refugees; and even Bhutanese and Nepalese immigrants live in India under friendship treaties with valid work permits. Not just that, for the past three decades, India has been welcoming Buddhist refugees from Myanmar. But suddenly there is no space for the Rohingyas.

Experts attribute this hardening of stance to the ruling BJP’s anti-Muslim sentiment. “It seems, the Indian government is not so concerned about the influx of refugees; it is more against the religion of these refugees,” says Harsh Mander, general secretary of the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies.

India, which is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries, doesn’t have any refugee law. It is not even signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to form the 1967 Refugee Protocol. According to the UNHCR, even so, India cannot send the Rohingyas back as the principle of non-refoulement is considered part of customary international law and binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not. Non-refoulement refers to the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

This looks like an assurance for Shamsheeda Begum, who considers India as her home now. “Throw us into the sea or put us into jail but we will not go back to Myanmar,” she stresses.

She lives in the Delhi slum in a 7ft by 6ft makeshift wooden house – there are 45 of them – supported by bamboo frames and covered with tarpaulin sheets. These houses stand next to each other on a 9,900 square-feet plot provided by the NGO, Zakat Foundation of India, which also sponsors the education of 65 Rohingya children.

“Life is so much better here. Only after coming to India have we understood what it is to live freely. In Myanmar, we always feared for our lives,” says Shamsheeda, who claims images of mutilated bodies and burnt houses from her past Myanmar life still haunt her.

Haroon, too, is taken aback with India’s sudden stepmotherly turn. “I thought India is a peace-loving country. It gives space to all. Why is India being so harsh on us?” he asks.

Perhaps Haroon has not heard one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular punchlines – “Mera desh badal raha hai (My country is changing).”

Enough said.

The plastic roof of Anwara Begum’s shanty in Kalindi Kunj is scant protection against the bitter cold of Delhi. But Begum may not be able to retain even this 8ft by 6ft hut for long. She is one of the thousands of Rohingyas who have fled the Arakan area of western Myanmar over the past two years fearing atrocities by the state and have come to India seeking refuge.

“First, the police shooed us away from a Vasant Kunj mosque and then from Okhla. We may be asked to leave this place too anytime,” says Begum, who lives with her husband and five children in this hut.

Thirty kilometres away in north Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tila, Penba Dolma, a Tibetan, lives in a two-roomed house. Her two children go to a nearby Tibetan school and her husband runs a shop.

“Even though we are hopeful that we would go back to our country one day, India has become a second home now,” says Dolma.

Both Begum and Dolma are refugees in India. But the two lead very different lives. Begum feels like an alien here while Dolma has a sense of belonging to India. This is because India doesn’t treat its refugees alike as it does not have a standardised law for them.

India is home to over 4.5 lakh refugees from various countries, including Tibet, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. But refugees from different countries are treated differently here. For example, schools are set up for Tibetans and they have been offered acres of agricultural land in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala. Similarly, designated camps have been set up in Tamil Nadu for the Sri Lankan refugees. Bhutanese and Nepalese live in India under friendship treaties. Some refugees even get work permits. But refugees from other countries don’t enjoy these privileges.

“The status of refugees in India is governed by political discretion rather than any codified model of conduct. A law on refugees is an urgent need to ensure that uniform treatment is given to all,” says Delhi-based lawyer Aarthi Rajan, who deals with refugee-related cases.

Not only does India not have a special refugee law, it is not even a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to the 1967 Refugee Protocol. According to it, a refugee is a person who has left his or her own country because of fear of persecution for race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. Under the Convention, refugees enjoy rights pertaining to their movement, jobs, housing, public education and social security in the country of their refuge.

Experts say that India’s treatment of refugees is discretionary because it is not a signatory to this Convention. But the government points out that there is little to be gained by ratifying it. “Except for Afghanistan, none of the other south Asian countries is a signatory to it, so it doesn’t make sense for India to ratify the Convention,” says a senior ministry of external affairs (MEA) official.

At present, refugees, except for those from Tibet and Sri Lanka, register themselves as asylum seekers with the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often confused. An asylum seeker is one who claims to be a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. But we conduct their interviews and grant them refugee status over a period of nine months,” says Nayana Bose, associate external relations officer, UNHCR.

But interestingly, India does not recognise the UNHCR’s grant of refugee status. This often leads to confusion among refugees.

An attempt was once made to frame a holistic law related to refugees. Former Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati, had drafted a model refugee law, based on which the Refugees and Asylum Seekers Protection Bill was framed in 2006. But the bill was never tabled in Parliament. According to security forces it gave too broad a definition of the term “refugee”.

The bill stated that the determination of an application for asylum should not be limited to fear of persecution by the government alone. The asylum seekers may also be victims of a non-government group that makes it untenable for them to live in their native country.

Security forces argued that this would pose a danger to national security as India shares porous borders with neighbouring countries. “This provision would have allowed illegal migrants to come to India under the garb of a refugee,” says a Border Security Force official.

A senior MEA official echoes a similar concern. “Since there is no clear differentiation between a refugee and an illegal migrant either in the convention or the model law, this would aggravate our problems of illegal immigration and insurgency,” says Rohita Mishra, under secretary, United Nations Economic Social Division, MEA.

Apart from the danger of illegal migrants posing as refugees, there have also been some instances of refugees being tried as illegal migrants. Recently, a Rohingya family, which was trying to make its way to the UNHCR office in Delhi, was arrested by the police. All the family members were tried and convicted under the Foreigners Act, 1946, for being illegal immigrants.

“Currently, refugees are being dealt with under the Foreigners Act, but this law does not deal with the term ‘refugee’. Here, the term ‘foreigner’ is used to cover aliens temporarily or permanently residing in the country. That’s the reason why India should formulate a law with a clear definition of a refu-gee to ensure that no refugee is apprehended as an illegal migrant,” says advocate Shubhodeep Roy, who has worked on cases related to refugees.

Rajan suggests that fugitives or persons fleeing from criminal prosecution for non-political reasons should be kept out of the ambit of the definition of refugee. The law should also have the provision for non-refoulement, “which means that a refugee cannot be sent back to the place from which he has fled so long as the compelling circumstances persist,” she adds.

Activists are also pushing for a law that will deal with harassment of refugees. “Cops often extort money from refugees. At times, even our children are subjected to abuse. We want a humane law that would safeguard our interests,” says Suraiya Ebadi, a refugee from Afghanistan.

The UNHCR too has been urging India to come up with a national law. “Building upon what is already being done for refugees in India, a national legal framework will formalise India’s tradition of hospitality and generosity towards refugees,” says Bose.

 Until that happens, people like Ebadi and Begum will continue to live in fear and insecurity.

(The Telegraph, December 26, 2012)Image.