Fearing detention and deportation, Rohingya refugees flee to Bangladesh

Many refugees at Delhi’s Rohingya camps said that the Indian government has created a coercive environment and that a constant fear of deportation looms over them. Adnan Abidi / REUTERS
18 February, 2019

“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.

Several refugees attributed the sudden surge of Rohingyas leaving India to the increasing frequency with which the government has conducted a verification of Rohingya refugees since the home minister’s September 2018 directive. “From 2012 to 2014, the Indian government used to conduct head counts once every year,” Mohammed Salimullah, a Rohingya refugee who runs a small shop in the Kalindi Kunj camp, told me. “In the last three to four months, at least 100 inquiries have been held.” Salimullah added that the refugees were being asked to fill “various kinds of forms apart from biometric verification process, so people are scared that the government is planning to send us back to Burma,” referring to the older name for Myanmar.

One of the forms that the Indian authorities give to the Rohingyas in the Delhi camps, titled the “Personal Data Form,” asks for details of a refugee’s family members in Myanmar. There are separate columns asking for details of an applicant’s children and siblings as well as the siblings of their father, mother, and husband or wife. The refugees told me they were wary of sharing this information. “Those who remain in Burma, it is really harmful to them if the Indian government decides to share this information with the Burmese government,” Nezamudden said. “We will be putting them in danger.”

Several Rohingya refugees at the camps told me that their fears about the ongoing process in India were in large part a result of a starkly similar citizenship-verification programme that the Myanmar government launched in June 2014. Though Myanmar had declassed the Rohingyas from citizenship in 1982, the community used to enjoy voting rights. But in February 2015, eight months after the verification programme began, the government of Myanmar rescinded the voting rights of all Rohingyas. This period witnessed an escalation in violence against Rohingyas by the military as well as Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority population. The Rohingyas have endured gross violations of human rights in Myanmar. In 2017, the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights recorded testimonies of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, which illustrate the nature of these violations. They included extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, deportation and forced transfers.

The refugees in India now seem to be enduring a few of the same violations, with increasing cases of detentions and deportations. According to Nezamudden, there are currently around three hundred Rohingyas in Indian jails, who were arrested for illegally entering India. “Their only crime was that they didn’t have legal documents while entering the country,” Nezamudden said. “If they could just go to the passport office to get a passport issued, they wouldn't have left the country and come to India to seek refuge.”

According to him, the situation of Rohingya refugees is different from other refugees who have come to India through official channels. “Even the UN Security Council is saying that there is genocide happening against us. We are fleeing from such a situation, and Indian government is asking us for passports.” Salimullah, who came to India through Kolkata, explained that those who successfully reach the UNHCR are issued refugee cards, which give them permission to live here. “But, if someone is caught before reaching UNHCR, they are sent to jail.”

At the Rohingya camps, several refugees recounted their experiences with the Indian authorities—their accounts seemed to indicate that the situation has not always been this hostile. In fact, most of the refugees had entered India between 2010 and 2012, and several of them said that the BSF had treated them well when they were caught by the border personnel. Mohammad Sirajullah, one of the refugees at the Kalindi Kunj camp, hailed from the Maungtaw province of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and fled to India in September 2012 to escape from communal violence. Since they were declassed from citizenship, in 1982, Myanmar’s Rohingya population predominantly lives in the Rakhine State.

“The Buddhist monks came and rounded up young men in our village,” Sirajullah recalled. “The Burmese military was on their side. Two people including a friend of mine were killed in front of my eyes.” Sirajullah said he was thrashed to the extent that his entire body was swollen. “That’s when I fled the country.” He walked three hours to reach Bangladesh, and then took a bus to the border before crossing the Indian border on foot. “I was caught by the BSF at Agartala,” Sirajullah continued. “I had high fever. A deputy superintendent of police gave me medical care, fed me and gave me clothes. They then took me to Delhi and took me to a hospital where I was treated for two weeks. After that, I got the refugee card from UNHCR.”

But the atmosphere for the Rohingya community in India appears to have nosedived over the last two years—in August 2017, an attack by a Rohingya militant group had triggered a massive Myanmar military counteroffensive that led to an exodus of over 600,000 Rohingyas from the country. In September that year, the BSF officials revealed that they were using chilli sprays and stun grenades to prevent fleeing Rohingya refugees from entering India. More recently, in January this year, the BSF arrested 68 Rohingya refugees, several of whom accused the security force of beating them up and confiscating their UNHCR cards. The BSF denied the allegations.

Salimullah’s experience with the Indian authorities, too, reflects a shift in their approach to the refugees in the last two years. In 2012, he recalled, Salimullah entered India from the West Bengal border after traversing most of the distance from Myanmar by foot. That year itself, he received a refugee card from the UNHCR. “In 2014, I was given a long-term visa, which could be renewed every year. But since 2017, the government has stopped renewing our visas.” In September 2017, Salimullah, along with another Rohingya refugee, Mohammed Shaqir, filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the government's August 2017 directive to deport the Rohingyas, and urging the court to secure the rights of refugees.

Prashant Bhushan, the advocate representing the petitioners, argued that the government's decision to deport Rohingyas was contrary to the principle of non-refoulement—a tenet of international law that guarantees protection to individuals from being returned to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe that there is real risk or threat to their life. The principle is enshrined in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979. The home ministry, however, submitted an affidavit to the apex court, in September 2018 stating, “The Rohingya are not refugees.” The affidavit added, “There is a procedure to get refugee status and none of them followed this procedure. No Rohingya has got asylum in India nor anyone has applied for it.”

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, of 1951 defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted, for reasons of race, religions, nationality, membership of a particular social group or opinion is outside the country of his (or her) habitual residence is unable…. to return to it.” But India is not a signatory to it. In Salimullah and Shaqir’s petition, they argued that a person becomes a refugee once he fulfils this criteria and the refugee status is declaratory in nature. “A person does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognised because he or she is a refugee,” the petition stated. The petitioners argued that the principle of non-refoulement is applicable even to those who have not been formally declared refugees.

Though the court urged the central government to consider the Rohingya crisis as a humanitarian and human-rights issue in October 2018, it did not stop the deportation process—on 3 January this year, the Indian government deported a family of five refugees. The case is still pending before the court.

Nezamudden believed that the government’s position in court was a result of the Rohingyas getting “caught in the political game based on religion in India.” He felt that the Rohingya issue was being exploited by the BJP, before adding, “It doesn’t make any difference to us as to which political party comes to power, we just want them to let us live.” He said that he, like many others around him, would “go back on our own the moment Burma gives us citizenship.”

Salimullah and Shaker, too, told me that after spending five to eight years in jail, several Rohingya refugees begin to feel that it would be better to return to Myanmar than to languish in Indian jails forever. “So they are saying, ‘send us back to Burma, we don’t want to be in jail anymore,’” Salimullah said. But the Indian government uses this as a strategy, he added. “Now the court is asking us, ‘see those people want to go and Burmese government is willing to take them back, then why are you interfering in this?’”

Most of the refugees at the Delhi camps said they felt absolutely helpless, without any say in what happens to them. “We are not asking for citizenship,” Shaker told me. “We did not come here to fight, but we came here seeking peace. All we are asking is to give us refugee status and to let us stay alive here. Once the situation in our country improves and we are given citizenship, we will happily go back.”

But most Rohingyas in India do not have a house or land to go back to. The deported refugees are placed in camps for internally displaced persons spread across Myanmar. Rakhine State alone has 23 such sites, with a total of 1,28,168 Rohingyas. Though these centres have been designated as transit camps by the Myanmar government, Nezamudden said they would be kept there for years. “In 2011, many people were killed, and their houses and property were destroyed. Those who were taken to displacement camps at that time are still living in those camps.”

According to a report published by Reuters in December 2018, people in these camps are living under “the same severe movement restrictions as before. A network of official checkpoints and threats of violence by local Buddhists prevent Muslims from moving freely.” Nezamudden questioned the Myanmar government’s intent behind its claims that the country would accept the Rohingyas. “How can we believe that?” he asked. “We are still in danger there.”

Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, also highlighted the Myanmar government’s “recalcitrance” to create conditions for the safe return of the Rohingya refugees. According to a 25 January communiqué by Lee, “The campaign of violence against the Rohingya continues, with the security forces slowly bleeding the remaining Rohingya population and continuing to force them to flee to Bangladesh.”

Many refugees told me that organisations such as the UNHCR could do more to ensure their safety. “If the Indian government does not wish to let us stay here, we hope that [the UNHCR] could work with international agencies to send us to places like Canada who are willing to accept Rohingya refugees,” Mohammed Salim, a 66-year-old refugee living in the Shaheen Bagh camp, said. “We are willing to go where we will be accepted, but not to Myanmar.”

Muneera, a 33-year-old resident of the Kalindi Kunj camp, too, refused to return to Myanmar “as long as our people are abused and tortured.” In Delhi, she works as a domestic help in a residential complex near her camp and told me that the Rohingyas who returned to Myanmar are not even allowed to study. “I have three young kids who are studying now. At least we are alive here and my kids can go to school.”