Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugees face deportation threat

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Rohingya refugees leaving their settlement for a centre following a police verification drive, in Jammu on March 7. Photo: PTI

The return of military rule in Myanmar has upended the lives of the Rohingya refugees in India where they face the terrifying prospect of being deported by a Central government hell-bent on exploiting the situation for political gain.

As Myanmar reels under a violent crackdown following a military coup, Rohingya Muslims who fled to India years ago are being detained and threatened with forced deportation to their troubled country. Since 1978, tens of thousands of Rohingya, classified as the most persecuted minority in the world by the United Nations (U.N.), have fled targeted military violence in their home country and taken shelter in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Thailand, among other places.

In February, Myanmar’s armed forces, known as Tatmadaw, wrested power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. This led to a series of protests followed by deadly state reprisal. According to Human Rights Watch, the security forces used excessive and lethal force against peaceful protesters throughout the country. They have killed at least 55 people, carried out hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions and enforced disappearances. The junta has amended the laws to strip away basic rights, initiated politically motivated prosecutions, and intermittently blocked Internet access.

Ali Johar, founder of the Rohingya Literacy Programme, said: “The military is shooting down protesters on the streets of Myanmar. Thousands are fleeing for their lives, including cops. How is the government of India thinking to send us back there?”

Also read: Plea filed in Supreme Court seeking the release of Rohingya refugees detained at ‘holding centres’ in Jammu

Observers fear that if the Rohingya cannot be deported, they might be indefinitely detained in camps within India. So far, more than 300 Rohingya have been languishing in various detention centres across the country. The government has not been able to find a solution for them even as it detains more people.

The spate of detentions of Rohingya Muslims went up in March, adding ammunition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) communal propaganda during the March-April Assembly elections in four States.

Spate of detentions

On March 24, officials from the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Delhi, along with beat constables from the Shaheen Bagh and Kalindi Kunj police stations, reached Madanpur Khadar, where the Rohingya have been living in a makeshift settlement. They picked up a family of six members stating that they were required for interrogation. But the family was not taken to a police station. After a few hours, officials told the family’s relatives that the family members were being detained at a holding centre near Inderlok in west Delhi. The relatives did not visit the family, fearing they too would be detained.

Six people, including a pregnant woman, were detained from another camp in Delhi. On March 10, a few Rohingya were picked up from outside the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) office. Some of them were released. But the community, gripped by fear of detention, deportation, or death, is struggling between keeping a low profile and seeking legal recourse.

Between March 6 and 8, around 196 people were detained in Jammu and incarcerated in the Hiranagar Sub Jail in Kathua, which has been converted into a holding centre. Mukesh Singh, Inspector General of Police (Jammu), said that once the Myanmar embassy verified them, they were most likely to be deported to Myanmar. Reports indicate that following a biometric verification organised by the Jammu & Kashmir administration, some Rohingya never returned to the camps and were jailed by the police.

Also read: Rohingya refugees without valid papers rounded up and confined to ‘holding centres’ in Jammu and Kashmir

In January 2020, as the protests and debate around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) became louder, Dr Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, unequivocally stated that the government’s plan was to deport the Rohingya, who were Muslim refugees and would therefore not be able to secure citizenship.

He said: “They are not part of the six religious minorities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian) in three neighbouring states (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan). They are from Myanmar and hence have to go as they are not eligible for Indian citizenship under the CAA.”

The CAA, while protecting the rights of non-Muslim immigrants from the Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, keeps out persecuted religious minorities from the Muslim community such as the Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan or the Rohingya from Myanmar. Also, it does not provide any succour to persecuted minorities from other neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, China and Nepal.

Defending the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament before it became law, Home Minister Amit Shah had said: “There is a fundamental difference between a refugee and an infiltrator. This Bill is for refugees.” He did not stop at that but turned up the heat on the Muslim migrants. Referring to Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh during an election rally in Delhi in September 2018, he said: “Illegal immigrants are like termites and they are eating the food that should go to our poor, and they are taking our jobs. They carry out blasts in our country and so many of our people die.” He added: “If we come to power in 2019, we will find each and every one and send them away. Action against them should not worry any patriot.”

Also read: Justice for Rohingyas

Later, several other BJP leaders adopted this technique of communalisation of Muslim migrants. In the run-up to the West Bengal Assembly election, Suvendu Adhikari, previously with the Trinamool Congress, called Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, against whom he is contesting in Nandigram, an “aunt of infiltrators and Rohingya”. In the past, Mamata Banerjee has supported the Rohingya and sided with the U.N in the matter. According to G.A. Mir, Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee president, the ongoing drive against the Rohingya Muslims in Jammu was deliberately timed with an eye on the latest round of Assembly elections.

Media attacks

Fake news describing the Rohingya as criminals has added to the fear and uncertainty plaguing the community in the wake of the detentions. When Mahendra Singh, Uttar Pradesh Jal Shakti Minister, tweeted that the U.P. government had freed six acres of land in Madanpur Khadar belonging to the State irrigation department from land mafia and shared a video of properties being demolished, some sections of the media declared that a Rohingya settlement had been demolished.

“Yogi Govt demolishes illegal construction, takes control of land where Amanatullah Khan had settled Rohingyas,” screamed a headline. Amanatullah Khan is an Aam Aadmi Party MLA who had been linked with the Shaheen Bagh protests. A Frontline probe found that the properties demolished were 500 metres away from the Rohingya settlement in Madanpur Khadar and had nothing to do with the Rohingya. Yet, some media houses chose to run the fake news.

Also read: Hounding Rohingyas

Condemning this sort of targeted media attack, Sabber Kyaw Min, founder of ROHRIngya (Rohingya Human Rights Initiative Office), told Frontline: “This is sheer harassment. We are peaceful people and most of us are engaged in daily wage labour of scrap collection and petty trade. We are not here to harm anyone. All communities have good and bad elements. If someone is indulging in anything wrong, we will support and cooperate with the government to bring them to book but an entire community should not be criminalised. We want to appeal to the Indian government not to touch innocents.”

Fear of deportation

On March 11, Mohammad Salimullah filed a petition in the Supreme Court urging the government to release the detainees in Jammu and desist under international laws and on humanitarian grounds from deporting them to Myanmar until the situation there improved. The plea sought directions to the UNHCR to intervene and assess the protection needs of the refugees and grant them refugee cards. It has also sought directions to the Union Territory government and the Ministry of Home Affairs to grant refugee identification cards through the FRRO.

The petition invoked the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids the expulsion of refugees if there is a danger to their life in the origin country. Although India is not a party to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, non-refoulement is recognised as customary international law and is binding on all countries.

India often clubs Rohingya refugees with the class of illegal immigrants who may be deported by the government under the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Foreigners Order 1948. The petition said: “This is coupled with discrimination against the Rohingya by the government, they being largely Muslim refugees. Legally, however, a refugee is a special category of immigrant and cannot be clubbed with an illegal immigrant.”

On March 26, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian reserved their order on the plea.

Also read: Rohingya crisis: Going through fire

Representing the Rohingya in court, Prashant Bhushan, advocate, emphasised that the Rohingya were refugees, given the systematic oppression and violence against them in Myanmar. He pointed out that most of the detainees in Jammu had identity cards issued by the UNHCR.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the issue was primarily diplomatic and outside the judicial domain. He termed the Rohingya as “illegal migrants” and said the government would confirm with Myanmar if they were its citizens and then deport them in accordance with law. “India cannot be a capital for all illegal migrants of the world,” he said.

The CJI, before reserving the order, said, “Possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that.”

Since October 2018, India has deported 12 Rohingya to Myanmar, claiming they left voluntarily, according to Human Rights Watch. In the same month, Indian authorities arrested 31 Rohingya men, women and children stuck at the border.

The fear of repatriation and persecution within India resulted in several Rohingya undertaking an arduous journey from Jammu to Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi officials, at least 1,300 Rohingya arrived in the country in December 2018 alone.

India claims that there are an estimated 40,000 Rohingya in the country. At least 16,500 are registered with the UNHCR. Since 2016, the Rohingya in Jammu have been under targeted attack by extremist Hindu vigilantes. In an incident in April 2017, unidentified assailants set fire to five Rohingya homes. In February this year, the Indian navy and coast guard found 81 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh stranded on a fishing boat in the Andaman Sea after its engine failed on the way to Malaysia. There were also eight dead refugees; they had died of hunger and dehydration. After the refugees sent their GPS location to relatives, the authorities located the boat and provided food and medical and technical aid.

Also read: Rohingyas: Victims twice over

The government sent the refugees back to Bangladesh, which refused to accept them. Following the violent repression in Myanmar, hundreds of people—mostly police and their families—crossed over to Mizoram, where they received humanitarian aid.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Any plan to forcibly return the Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled. Myanmar’s long-abusive military is even more lawless now that it is back in power, and the Indian government should uphold its international law obligations and protect those in need of refuge within its borders.”

In November 2019, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into Myanmar’s forced deportation of the Rohingya and related crimes against humanity.

The Indian government has expressed concern over the coup and said that the rule of law and democratic process must be upheld. Human Rights Watch has called upon the Indian government to not deport the Rohingya or others, including the police officers and their families, to Myanmar until the Indian government can appropriately determine whether they are seeking asylum. The organisation said: “If so, they have a right to a fair and efficient review of their claim.

Those found to be refugees should have access to education, health care and employment. Anyone slated for deportation should have access to a fair procedure to determine whether they face harm on return.”

Related Articles

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor