The ‘Rohingya crisis’ surfaces once again in the country, as the Delhi police detained 88 Rohingya refugees protesting in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi last week. Out of the 88 detained Rohingyas, 17 were pregnant women and children, and 71 were men.
This comes in the wake of the March 6 incident this year, when 168 Rohingya refugees were rounded up in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and detained. Rohingya refugees in J&K were hauled up for “verification” at Maulana Azad Stadium in Jammu, where they were required to provide biometric and biographic data, including information about relatives at risk in Myanmar.
During the verification process, 155 refugees were chosen at random by the police and detained. Later the same day, 13 more refugees were arrested. The following morning, police along with their vehicles were stationed near several refugee settlements. Fearing deportation, many refugees fled from their homes in J&K and many went into hiding.
Some of the displaced Rohingyas came to Delhi and staged a protest against the police action, even while seeking sanctuary outside the UNHCR office in the capital. The protesters fearing arrest by the Indian authorities, who have announced plans to deport them, were seeking protection from the UN body. Besides, they had wanted to renew their refugee cards.
The detained refugees from J&K possess either valid or expired refugee cards issued by the UNHCR. According to a Mohammad Rafiq, a detained refugee, they had UNHCR cards, which give them refugee status. “We are not illegal immigrants. We came to India in 2012 and we have been living here since then. Some of us have expired UNHCR cards which we have been unable to update due to Covid-19 restrictions and Internet blackouts in J&K,” he added.
They had come to Delhi to ask UNHCR to help them since the Indian authorities were planning to deport them. “But, they didn’t listen to our plight,” he said.
Another detained refugee Ali Mohammed was anxious about his wife and children. He said, “I am very scared as they have taken the children and women elsewhere. I don’t know what they will do to us.”
Vikas Sahu, sub-inspector, Vikaspuri police station confirmed that 88 persons have been detained, out of which 17 women and children have been taken to the UNHCR facility in Vikaspuri. The 71 Rohingya men have been moved to a shelter in the capital’s Inderlok area, he said.
Meanwhile, officials in Jammu said the detained Rohingyas will be deported to their homeland, Myanmar. “A list of the Rohingyas currently in a holding centre will be sent to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry will send the list to the Myanmar government and after verification of their nationality we will deport them,” Jammu Inspector General of Police, Mukesh Singh told the media.
UNHCR cards do not entitle refugee status to Rohingyas in India, he clarified. “We can deport them even though they have the UNHCR card. This issue can be referred to the Indian government and the Supreme Court,” he added.
Rohingyas in trouble after BJP came to power
India has an estimated 40,000 Rohingyas, at least 16,500 of whom are registered with the UNHCR. According to UNHCR, 350 Rohingyas are ‘in detention’ in India, some of them have been arbitrarily detained for 7 to 10 years with limited access to UNHCR and legal representation.
But since 2016, extremist Hindu groups have targeted Rohingya refugees in India and have demanded their eviction. BJP has labelled Rohingya refugees as “illegal immigrants” and has sought to ‘identify’ and locate them with the clear purpose of deporting them to Myanmar.
A public anti-Rohingya campaign, claiming that they are “terrorists,” instigated some vigilante-style violence, including a reported arson attack by unidentified assailants on five Rohingya houses in Jammu in April 2017.
Indian authorities have deported 12 Rohingyas since October 2018. The police detained approximately 60 refugees in Assam, West Bengal, and New Delhi between November 2020 to January 2021. In Haryana, refugee families have faced harassment by the police, who have displaced them from their homes.
In February, at least 81 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh refugee camps, were found crammed in a fishing boat drifting in the Andaman sea, after its engine had failed on the way to Malaysia. They were suffering from severe hunger and dehydration; eight people had died.
After the refugees sent their GPS location to relatives, the Indian navy and coast guard located the boat and provided food, medical, and technical aid. The Indian government has sought to send the refugees back to Bangladesh, which has refused to accept them.
The Rohingyas in Delhi took asylum in Budena Gaon where 30 Rohingya families live, who had been part of an earlier exodus in 2012. The same is true for the camps located in Hyderabad, Jaipur, Jammu, and Chennai.
M Jaman, a Rohingya pointed out that they have been living in Delhi for the past 10 years. “But now we are scared. For the last 3 to 4 years, there is constant pressure on us. Police come anytime and note down our names and numbers. Our children are born in India and we don’t want to go back to Myanmar,” he said.
“We are not ready to return until the situation improves in Myanmar,” said Mohammad Saleem, another Rohingya. “It is extremely distressing for us to be sent back to Myanmar against our wishes.”
Indian rights activist Tapan Bose of the Free Rohingya Coalition advocacy group said this is completely a BJP agenda. “BJP is saying that the Rohingyas are a threat to the country and national security. These are people who have been prosecuted and beaten up for several decades. They have never done anything violent in terms of protest. I feel ashamed that the Indian government is doing this. This is a humanitarian cause and deporting them is totally inhumane,” she said.
“Any plan to forcibly return Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “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.”