Rohingya refugees live in fear as Delhi Police detains families from camps

On 31 March, Delhi Police officials detained four members of a Rohingya family from the Kalindi Kunj refugee camp in the national capital. The incident is not the first instance of Rohingya refugees being picked up from the camps, and police officials have refused to reveal why the families are being detained. CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan
01 April, 2021

On the morning of 31 March, Delhi Police officials picked up four members of a Rohingya family from Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj refugee camp. The four members were the 70-year-old Sultan Ahmed, his 45-year-old wife, Halima, and their two sons, 28-year-old Noor Mohammed and 19-year-old Osman. A week earlier, the police similarly detained a family of six. Anwar Shah Alam, a 33-year-old community leader from the Kalindi Kunj camp, told me that both families were taken to a detention camp operated by the central government’s Foreign Regional Registration Office, in west Delhi’s Inderpuri area. Alam and other camp residents said the police refuse to reveal why the families are detained. “We went after the police, asked them why they have taken the family,” Minara, another community leader from the camp, who is also Halima’s niece, said. “The police said, ‘don’t interfere or you will be next.’” 

Minara recounted waking up at 8 am to urgent cries for help from her neighbors. “I was told they are taking my aunt and family away,” she said. “We rushed to the spot and there were around five policemen, including one woman police official.” The 35-year-old community leader told me that her family was given no time to pack their belongings before they were rushed out of the camp. “My aunt was sick, she was on medicine for stomach ache for the past ten days, and they didn’t even let her pick up her medicines.” 

Fazal Abdali, a human-rights advocate who has been working with Rohingya refugees in India since the past ten years, was at the camp when the police came to pick up the family on 31 March. Abdali told me he followed the police to the Kalindi Kunj police station and inquired why they had picked up that family. “The SHO told me he had orders from the centre and he was merely following them,” Abdali said. 

That evening, I went to the Kalindi Kunj police station, to meet the station house officer, Sukhdev Singh Mann, who refused to answer any questions. “I am not authorised to speak on the matter. You should approach higher authorities. The police have no jurisdiction over the matter,” Mann said. Queries regarding the detention sent to Rajender Prasad Meena, the deputy commissioner of police for South East Delhi, were also unanswered. 

Minara and other residents at the camp insist that both the families who were picked up from the Kalindi Kunj camp had cards issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees—the UN’s refugee agency. India does not have any national refugee law or any formal refugee-protection framework, and the government has allowed the UNHCR to register refugees in the country. The UNHCR conducts refugee-status determination processes and issues refugee cards to individuals who are unable to return to their home countries due to war, violence, or a well-founded fear of persecution. According to Chander Uday Singh, a senior advocate who represented the UN special rapporteur on minority issues in the Supreme Court, the UNHCR card ought to protect the Rohingya refugees but it does not in practice. 

“The UNHCR grants refugee identification documents to the Rohingyas in consultation with the Indian government, so in that sense, the Rohingyas should be treated as refugees and allowed certain provisions under the UN Refugee Convention of 1951,” Singh told me. “However, since India is not a party to that convention, it maintains that it owes nothing to the Rohingyas. Our government uses this argument as it suits them, to detain, deport and repatriate these refugees when they feel like it.” Meanwhile, the UNHCR’s official statement in response to the situation simply states that the organisation is “aware about the reports of the holding up of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers” and that it is “continuing to seek further information from the government authorities.” 

Minara, a 35-year-old Rohingya community leader from the Kalindi Kunj refugee camp, said the police picked up her aunt, Halima, and her family on 31 March. When she asked the police why they were being detained, “the police said, ‘don’t interfere or you will be next.’” CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

Alam told me that there are a total of 269 families currently residing at the Kalindi Kunj camp. “Everyone at this camp, all the families have their UNHCR card,” Minara said. “This is the scariest part, at least tell us what we did wrong, tell us why you are picking up these families, so the rest of us can feel a little more secure.” The 35-year-old told me that in early March, a few days after the Jammu police detained over 150 Rohingya refugees and the news reached the Kalindi Kunj camp, the SHO Mann and other police officials had come by to speak to her and other community leaders. “They told us we had nothing to fear, nothing like what happened in Jammu would happen here,” Minara said. “They asked us to make sure that no new refugee is housed at the camp and that we inform them if anyone new came by. No one has come by yet and we have committed no crime, flouted no rule, then why are they leaving us in the dark?” 

Apart from the two families from Kalindi Kunj camp, a total of six people from three families at the nearby Shram Vihar camp were also picked up by the police from their homes on 24 March, according to local residents. Abdullah, a 25-year-old resident of the Kalindi Kunj camp, told me that his 22-year-old sister, Aisha Begum, was one of the six people detained by the police from Shram Vihar. “She was living alone, her husband had left for Hyderabad,” Abdullah said. “She has a kidney disease, so she is also quite sick. I don’t know how she is managing her health in detention.” Ever since she was detained, Abdullah has had no contact with his sister. 

Ahmed Kabir, a 23-year-old resident of Kalindi Kunj, fears that the same fate will befall the refugees who have been detained from his camp. Kabir is a member and leader of a youth club at the camp, which was set up by the UN to help engage the community and its children in educational activities. A few days after the first family was sent to the detention centre, Kabir, along with a few other residents from the camp, went to visit the family. “It was a big three-storied building. We went to the reception with clothes and food for the family, but they only allowed us to send the clothes in,” Kabir said. “We could only see them through a window about 15 metres away from us. We couldn’t even talk to them. It is worse than jail, at least in jail they give you time to speak to loved ones.” 

Ahmed Kabir is a 23-year-old resident of the Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi's Kalindi Kunj. On 24 March, a family of six was detained from the camp, and Kabir went to visit them at the a detention camp operated by the central government’s Foreign Regional Registration Office, in west Delhi’s Inderpuri area. “It is worse than jail, at least in jail they give you time to speak to loved ones,” he said.  CK Vijayakumar for The Caravan

The advocate Abdali has been keeping track of the number of Rohingya detained in Delhi in the past month. He told me that at least 89 refugees are presently detained by the FRRO at its detention center in Inderpuri. Besides the 16 refugees who were picked up from the camps on 24 and 31 March, Abdali said two more were detained by the police at the Nizamuddin railway station on 28 March. The Delhi Police detained 71 others on 11 March for protesting in front of the UNHCR office in Delhi. The refugees were protesting against the detention of the Rohingya refugees in Jammu, who are currently held at a sub-jail that was converted into a holding centre in Hiranagar, a town in Jammu’s Kathua district. 

A sense of fear and panic now pervades the whole community at the Kalindi Kunj camp. Kulsuma, a 34-year-old Rohingya woman, and Shah Alam, her 37-year-old husband, said they were thinking of selling their sewing machine and all their valuables to use the money, rather than losing them in case the police decide to detain them and their four young children next. Kulsuma told me that on the night of 30 March, the police had visited and questioned four families including her own and Sultan Ahmed’s, who were detained the next day. “They came by asking us how many members are there in our family,” Kulsuma recalled. “They asked us if we were housing any other outsider. We assured them we are not. They then noted down details from our UNHCR card and left.” She added, “This is what they are doing, they go to speak to families at night and then randomly pick up one in the morning and take them away.” 

Kulsuma’s accusation was not unfounded. Kabir said that on the night of 23 March, the police questioned one member of the family of six who were detained the next morning. He told me the police had questioned 21-year-old Nurul Amin at a nearby government-run gas plant where Amin worked. “He was told to ensure that the family stays together at the house all of the next day, and then the police came and picked up Amin, his wife, his two brothers and his parents,” Kabir said. “We have no clue why they are choosing these specific families.” 

According to the community leader Minara, the Delhi Police has increasingly been making more frequent visits to the camp since early March, questioning families, taking their photographs and their identity card details before leaving. Kulsuma said she and her husband are unable to sleep at night, or even eat, fearing that the police will detain them next. “I have a headache, I can’t eat, I can’t work,” she told me. “I am constantly fearful that the police will barge in and take us away. They don’t even give time to pack anything. We will have to go with only with the clothes on our back.” Alam, her husband, chimed in, “Everyone here is afraid, everyone is selling their belongings.” 

On 31 March, the Assam Tribune reported that the Indian government was going to formally repatriate a 14-year-old Rohingya girl to Myanmar despite her request that she be sent to Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh, where her parents are currently in a refugee camp. The report quoted a  source in the Silchar Police, who said, “We are only following the orders passed on by the Centre.” The 14-year-old was to be deported on 1 April, and if it was carried out, she would be the first Rohingya national to be deported after the Myanmar military staged a coup in the country. 

On 26 March, the Supreme Court heard a petition seeking the release of the Rohingya refugees detained in Jammu. Prashant Bhushan, who represented the Rohingya petitioner, Mohammad Salimullah, argued that the international law principle of “non-refoulement” prohibited deportation of a refugee if there is a clear and certain danger of life in another country. During the hearing, the chief justice of India, SA Bobde, acknowledged the fear among the community of being sent back to Myanmar. “The fear is that once they are deported, they may get slaughtered,” Bobde said, before adding, “But we cannot control all that.” The case was reserved for orders, which is still pending. Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has reportedly begun the process of deporting them. 

Alam, the other community leader from the camp, told me that he never thought he would feel so unsafe in his life again. “The world knows that the situation in Myanmar is getting worse by the day, there is no going back, and now it’s getting harder to stay in India as well,” Alam said. He said that if the police just revealed the reason why they were detaining members of his community, then he would willingly cooperate with them. “But we can’t live in this constant fear, not knowing what we have done wrong and why the police are taking us away,” Alam told me. “If they plan to deport us back to Myanmar, I would rather they gather us all and kill us. Drown us in the ocean. Just get it done with.”