“Those who reach Bangladesh are lucky, but the conditions of those who are caught at the border are really bad,” Mohammed Shaker, a Rohingya resident of a refugee camp in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj area, told me. The Rohingyas are an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar who have been rendered stateless by the Myanmar’s military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against them. Since 2008, at least forty thousand Rohingyas have fled to India to escape persecution by the Myanmar government. But the thousands of Rohingya refugees are now looking at the bleak prospect of a second displacement, fleeing to Bangladesh to escape hostile conditions in India.
The Narendra Modi government has identified the Rohingyas as a threat to national security and refused to grant them refugee status. In August 2017, the central government directed state governments to identify and deport the Rohingyas living in India—over fifteen thousand of whom are registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. In September 2018, Amit Shah, the BJP national president, identified the Rohingyas as “illegal infiltrators” and said that the government “will not allow India to be a safe haven” for them. That month, Rajnath Singh, the union home minister, directed all state governments to collect the biometric data of all Rohingyas. In early February this year, Kiren Rijiju, the minister of state for home affairs, stated in Lok Sabha that the government has directed states to conduct surveys and deport Rohingyas in a “continuous manner.”
“People are freaked out that may be after this verification, they would be sent back,” Ali Johar, a refugee staying at the Kalindi Kunj camp and the founder of the Rohingya Literacy Program—a Delhi-based education initiative for the city’s Rohingya population—told me. “All this frequent verification and deportation looks related,” Nezamudden, a refugee and the chairman of the Rohingya Refugees Committee, said. Their fears are not unfounded. Since October last year, India has deported 12 Rohingya refugees, all of whom were being held in an Assam jail.
In January, I visited two Rohingya refugee camps in Delhi—at Shaheen Bagh and Kalindi Kunj—where over a hundred families live. Many refugees told me that the Indian government has created a coercive environment and that a constant fear of deportation looms over them. “The recent verification forms distributed by the government have jolted many of us back to the memories of the process that were conducted by the Burmese government just before driving us out of the country,” Nezamudden said. The spate of recent detentions, compounded by a policy of deportation, has sparked fear among Delhi’s Rohingya population, leading several refugees to flee to Bangladesh.
Shaker, the refugee from the Kalindi Kunj camp, volunteers with a non-governmental organisation called the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. He estimated that at least 3 percent of the refugees who try to cross the border to Bangladesh are caught by the Border Security Force, usually in the no-man’s land between the porous borders of the countries. In an email response, the office of the UNHCR stated that the international agency had observed an increase in the movements of Rohingya from India to Bangladesh since late December 2018. Between 16 January and 3 February this year, the BSF arrested at least 68 Rohingyas fleeing from India towards Bangladesh, and remanded them to judicial custody. Around 1,300 Rohingyas reportedly fled to Bangladesh in January alone. Several refugees at the camps told me that in the last eight months, those who have escaped from Myanmar into Bangladesh have preferred to stay there instead of coming to India.