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‘Going Back Would Be Suicide’: The Murky Future Of Rohingya Refugees In Delhi

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“Animals were better off than us,” says Hussein, recalling the horrors of the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Being a Rohingya, he has survived through decades of state-sanctioned apartheid. He fled from Myanmar in the wake of the 2012 conflict which left 90,000 people homeless. Now he lives in a makeshift shanty in the Kalindi Kunj area of New Delhi.

The slums house 150-200 Rohingya families who live in huts made of plastic, tin and bricks. They are among the 40,000 Rohingya who migrated to India in the aftermath of the 2012 conflict. The rape and murder of a Buddhist girl resurfaced the ethnic tension between Rohingya minority and Buddhist majority. The conflict spiralled out of control while the police stood aside, sometimes even allegedly helping the Buddhist majority.

Many fled from the conflict-hit areas of Myanmar to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and many other neighbouring countries – through days of walking through no man’s land or on overfilled boats. They were vulnerable, tortured, held for ransom, trafficked, sold as human cargo, enslaved or just killed.

Those left behind were rounded up in small camps with a shortage of water and medical facilities. They were not allowed to leave the camp. “We couldn’t even go talk to our neighbours because if the military saw it, they would kill us. Even animals could roam freely, but not us,” says Hussein. “I didn’t know what was outside our camp. We thought it might be the same everywhere. It’s when I fled away from the hell that I came to know about the world.”

But in India, the state of Rohingya people has hardly changed. Without an identification proof, they can’t search for a job. Most resort to rag picking while others earn a living through working in construction sites, making anything between ₹150 to ₹300 a day. The women mostly stay at home to take care of the children.

They live below the poverty line but still don’t have access to government subsidies and rations. They are sometimes even denied medical facilities due to the lack of identification proof. “They don’t take the UN card as identification proof,” says Nazir Ahmed. He couldn’t seek medical attention for his broken leg. It’s been three years since then.

Hussein’s 9-year-old daughter Nazia recalls how his grandfather died when “something happened in his stomach while we were running away from the village.” It was a wound caused during the conflict, that led to his death, Hussein explained. He couldn’t get the medical attention he needed and succumbed to his injuries.

Living in slums is another concern. Lack of sanitation and proper drainage systems and unhygienic surroundings lead to many medical issues. Rains and winters mar their makeshift homes. Many children were reported dead due to pneumonia during the windy winters. But people are still keen on living in these conditions rather than being deported back to Myanmar. “It’s far better than what was there in Burma,” Ahmed said.

People here have settled in. They are surviving through hardships, working as labourers and/or daily wagers. They are happy to have a place to live. For this stateless population, even slums are royal.

Nazia has spent most of her childhood in India and was untouched by most of the violence they had faced in Myanmar. She knows Hindi much better than any other elder Rohingya in that slum. She seems to be much more Indian than Burmese. “I have friends here. I like this place,” she said, when asked about how she feels about India.

India’s stance on this case is rather unusual, for India has, in the past years, granted asylum to many refugees – Tibetans, the Chakmas of Bangladesh, Afghans and ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka are among those given refuge in India. In 2016, the government also allowed Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to buy property for self-living, obtain driving licences, receive PAN and Aadhaar IDs, etc.

Hussein with his UNHRC card.

But that isn’t the case for the 40,000 Rohingya families living in India. The government has decided to deport the Rohingya population to Myanmar or Bangladesh, even those who have been registered by the UNHCR.

“I want to tell the international organisations, whether the Rohingya are registered under the United Nations Human Rights Commission or not, they are illegal immigrants in India,” said Union minister Kiren Rijiju.

Their horrors have resurfaced after the government stated its plan to deport the Rohingya population.“Going back to Burma would be suicide. I have a family. I have three daughters. We’ll rather die than go back to Burma,” says Ahmed.

The government has said that the presence of the Rohingya population in India has become a threat to national security. It pointed out that intelligence reports suggested links between some Rohingya immigrants and Pakistan-based terror groups. Being uptight about national security is their responsibility. But criminalising a whole community is an unfair way to approach that supposed national security.

“People here have always been helpful. These clothes that you see me wearing were all given to me by the neighbours. They sometimes even send us rice.” says Ahmed. “I never thought the government would do this to us. We have nowhere to go. We have no country now. I’m afraid of what might happen to us.”

The decision of deportation has been slammed by human rights groups like the UNHCR and Amnesty International. “Indian authorities are well aware of the human rights violations Rohingya Muslims have had to face in Myanmar, and it would be outrageous to abandon them to their fates,” said Raghu Menon, advocacy manager at Amnesty International India. “It shows blatant disregard for India’s obligations under international law,” he said.

India doesn’t have any laws relevant to refugees. It has not signed the 1951 UN convention on refugees which barred signatories from expelling refugees. But the ‘Principle of Non-Refoulement’ states that “refugees can’t be sent back to a country where his/her life may be under threat. The principle is a part of ‘Customary International Law’ and applies to all the countries, irrespective of their participation in UN convention.”

The deportation plan has been put on hold by the Supreme Court until the next hearing.

The Rohingya population comprises the largest stateless population after Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship in 1982. With this came heavy restrictions. The Myanmar government had effectively institutionalized discrimination against the ethnic group through restrictions on marriage, family planning, employment, education, religious choice, and freedom of movement. Murder and rape are widespread. With many Rohingya eager to escape the hell by any means possible, human traffickers have taken advantage of their desperate situations.

In 2015, the world was stunned when hundreds of Rohingya were found stranded in an overfilled boats in the middle of the open sea. Traffickers had abandoned them after a crackdown from the Thai government. That was a small glimpse of the situation of the ‘most persecuted minorities in the world’.

“I don’t want to go back. Please help us,” says Ahmed. His eyes are moist, despair evidently visible. “Whenever I see police here, I feel afraid. It’s the same as what I used to feel when the military came to camps in Myanmar,” he says holding his chest.

“People here have done so much for us. We had no place to go, they gave us a place to build these homes,” says Hussein. “We are thankful to people here. I believe they will help us, and the government will change their decision on deportation.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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