Rohingya refugees in fire-gutted Delhi camp say concerted effort to render them homeless

A child looks around what once was a refugee camp for Rohingya people in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area before it was gutted by a fire on the night of 12 June. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan
A child looks around what once was a refugee camp for Rohingya people in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area before it was gutted by a fire on the night of 12 June. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan
15 June, 2021

Around 11.30 pm on 12 June, a fire broke out at a Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area razing over 50 makeshift shanties and leaving about 270 residents homeless. The next day, residents told me that most of them lost all their possessions to the fire, including identity proofs such as cards given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We barely escaped with the clothes on our back,” Saleema Begum, a 22-year-old resident, said. While no one knew how the fire began, many refugees said there was a concerted effort to harass them. They used to earlier stay in a camp in the adjacent Kalindi Kunj area, till it was burned down in 2018. According to activists I spoke to, the Madanpur Khadar camp was built on land owned by the Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation department, which wanted to evict the refugees.

Many children lost their school books and certificates in the fire. The set back to children’s education due to the fire was one of the main concerns of the residents of the camp. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

No deaths or injuries were reported from the fire, but residents told me about the  losses they had endured. When we met on 13 June, Begum was among women and children who were huddled under a shed next to a mosque at the camp, taking shelter from the scorching afternoon sun. “All of us broke our backs trying to rebuild our lives here, saved up money for our children’s education, bought expensive things like coolers so our children can live comfortably through the summer,” she said. “Now all is lost.”

While some residents lined up for food and provisions that non-profits and Delhi government officials were distributing that day, others sifted through the ashes that were once their home, looking for scrap metal to sell. One such resident, 27-year-old Mohammed Noor Quasim, told me he had saved more than Rs 30,000 over the last two years by setting aside about Rs 1,000 from his salary each month. He put these savings in an earthen pot. “I have no bank account so I put it in that pot,” Quasim told me. “But all of it got burnt. The fire was spreading so quickly, either we could save our lives or our possessions.”

“It took not more than 15–20 minutes, and we lost everything,” Ahmed Kabir, a 23-year-old who leads a youth club at the camp, told me. Like others, Kabir said he is unsure of what caused the fire, but knew that it originated from a shanty at the camp that had been abandoned for a few months. He said its owner was currently living in rented accommodation outside the camp. “All her belongings were in there but she wasn’t there when the fire broke out, neither was anyone else,” Kabir said. “We don’t know if someone set fire to the camp or if this was an accident. No one can claim anything for sure yet.” Delhi police officials who were present on the ground told me that the they were still investigating the source of the fire and had collected samples of wires from that shanty to ascertain whether the cause was an electric short circuit.

The fire at the Kalindi Kunj camp in 2018 had also broken out in the middle of the night. At that time as well, most residents lost all their belongings, including important identity proofs like UNHCR cards and visa documents. They were rehabilitated at the Madanpur Khadar camp which is owned by the Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation board, even though it is under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government.

Referring to the Uttar Pradesh government, Asif Muhammad Khan, a former member of legislative assembly who was conducting relief work at the camp, said, “They have been trying to evict these people and reclaim their land ever since they were shifted here in 2018.” Khan, who is presently a Congress member, added, “Even now, you can see officials circling around. They have even sent guards so as to stop these refugees from setting here again.” Two private security guards were stationed at the site. They told me the Uttar Pradesh government had sent them, but refused to answer more questions.

Mohammed Noor Quasim looks at the pile of rubble that remains of his shanty, where he lived with his family. He had been saving Rs 1,000 every month for the last two years in an earthen pot. He lost all of his savings in the fire. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan
Every spot in the camp where once there was a kitchen, now has only a smouldering pile of rice surrounded by the molten plastic of the drum that was holding it. Minara, a 35-year old resident, said that the first thing that people bought when they had money was a large bag of rice, of about 20–30 kilograms. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

That afternoon, three men who identified themselves as officials of the Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation board were looking at the burnt site while sitting on the edge of the main road next to it. One of them, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me, “We have orders and we are here to make sure that they don’t settle on this land again. That is all.” On 26 March, the Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote, “The Uttar Pradesh government is all set to reclaim its land from Rohingyas in Kalindi Kunj area of Delhi.”

But residents at the camp said they hoped that the Delhi government will level the same land and set up tents for them to live in while a more permanent residence for them was finalised. Minara, a 35-year-old community leader at the camp, said that the Delhi government had assured her that they will set up temporary camps at the same site after levelling the ground with a JCB roller. On 13 June, I saw a JCB roller trying to enter the camp site, but it appeared to be stuck a few metres behind the site due to some commotion. Mehmood Anwar, a local who ran the charitable trust Al-Anwar and was conducting relief work, was among a crowd that had formed near the roller. “The UP government does not want them back in the camp, they are not even letting the JCB enter the camp,” Anwar said. “The fire is a good opportunity for the UP irrigation department to remove all the refugees.”

Praveer Kumar Singh, the sub-divisional magistrate for the area who was present there, refused to comment on whether the Delhi government will reinstate the refugees back to the land owned by the UP irrigation department. “Nothing has been decided yet, but we are doing our best to provide them with shelter, food and other basic provisions,” Singh said.

The refugees have now been displaced back to the Kalindi Kunj camp site, which was burnt down in 2018. “The Delhi government has set up tents for us here now,” Minara said over a call on the night of 14 June. But the refugees appear to be unwanted there as well. Irfan Baig, the secretary of the non-profit Zakat Foundation India, told me the organisation owns the land on which the Kalini Kunj camp is built. “The government has now forcibly shifted the refugees back to our land. We have suffered many losses through the pandemic, we want to sell that land now,” Baig told me. “The SDM needs to find another place to rehabilitate the refugees.”

According to Ali Johar, a Rohingya community activist, this fire was not an isolated incident but a part of a series of efforts by the government to intimidate refugees at the camp and evict them. “The 2018 fire incident remains unresolved. This was a temporary arrangement,” he said.

He told me that since the refugees moved to the Madanpur Khadar camp, members of UP’s irrigation board have continuously harassed them. Mohammad Salimullah, a leader from the camp, told me that some irrigation board members had visited the camp on the evening of 12 June, rounding up residents, asking them questions and taking their videos. “They came around 6 pm,” Salimullah said. “It was nothing new for us. Either Delhi police or UP government officials come occasionally and interrogate us. Just as part of their attempts to harass us.”

A pile of plates lies among a larger pile of metal things that became unusable after the fire. Residents collected this metal from their homes after the fire died down and sold it to recyclers for about Rs 20 per kilo. Ahmad Kabir, a 23-year-old resident said, “We don’t even have pots to boil milk for our children.” CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan
“There were so many things that we could not save even though we tried,” Ahmad Kabir said. “I was angry with myself that I couldn’t douse the fire. Many people were crying. Seeing them cry made me cry as well.” He added that it would take him a couple of years to get back to where he was. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

I asked two special secretaries with the Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation and water resources department for comments about the matter. Neither of them answered any specific questions about whether the government wanted to evict the Rohingya or if they were interrogating or harassing them. Mohammed Shahid, one of them, said, “It is the government’s land, it is needed for certain projects.” He added, “It will always be the government’s land, any private occupation will be considered illegal.” The other special secretary, Bhupendra Chaudhary, said, the issue had been brought to his notice and “I will get back once I have discussed it further with other officials.” This piece will be updated if and when he gets back.

Multiple people told me that minor fires have broken out at the camp site in recent months. “At least three minor fires broke out at this camp in the past five months already,” Johar said. “In Jammu as well, our camps were burnt down this year. This is not a random accident, there is clearly a pattern here.” More than a dozen shanties of Rohingya refugees were gutted in a massive midnight fire in Jammu on 5 April, according to The Wire. At the end of March, while I was reporting in the Kalindi Kunj camp, Minara told me that someone had attempted to burn her house down one night.

In April 2021, I reported on how the Delhi Police had picked up and detained refugees from the camp, leaving the residents fearful of eventual deportation. In early March, 155 refugees were detained from refugee camps in Jammu as well. In April, the Supreme Court, hearing a petition filed by Salimullah, refused to intervene to stop the deportation of the Rohingyas detained from the Jammu camp. “We are living in a constant state of trauma and fear,” Johar told me. “Before we even begin to deal with one trauma, we are uprooted again. And there is no government, no authority, willing to give us any assurance or support.”

Quasim, the Rohingya man who lost all his savings in the fire, said he is unsure if he can rebuild his life again. “I lost everything in the last fire, but I got another job and began saving again,” Quasim said, while dismantling the remains of his cooler. He told me he had no hope from the future—he cannot work as hard as he used to or provide for his children as well he wishes to. Standing next to a charred Quran at the site, he said, “Kuch nahi bacha hamara, quran bhi shaheed ho gayi”—We have nothing left, even the Quran was martyred.

A child walks past what was once a doorway to a house. Residents had shanties with solid wooden doors, cement floors, water proofing, air coolers and refrigerators to provide a comfortable life for their families. They lost most of such possessions during the fire. The Delhi Police had cordoned off the area where the fire took place, but the people kept moving in and out, in the hopes of salvaging something from their burnt homes. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the UN Human Rights Commission had given identity proofs to the refugees. They were given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The Caravan regrets the error.

Editors’ note: The byline for this article has been updated to correctly reflect reporting contributions.