“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.
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.”