Many Rohingya hold a refugee card issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, but feel a detention centre for illegal migrants would at least have toilets and potable water, unlike their camp on the Yamuna bank. “It’s almost like we are living on a road. We cannot return to Burma and we cannot run to another place,” sighs Mohammad Salimullahwho came to Delhi in 2013. “My family of five lives in a 10ft x10 ft tent, which is our bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, all in all. The absence of a toilet is particularly painful for women and children.”
The Rohingya have been living in the riverside camp since 2013, with a shift to a nearby location after a fire reduced their temporary dwellings to ashes in 2018. After yet another fire last year razed their shanties, they returned to their old location.
A frustrated Mohammed Johar27, says he had stopped worrying about the future since it was futile to think life would improve. Frustrated by the fresh snub to their status as refugees, he says, “We have no home, no country and no nationality. We have nothing in Delhi and there is nothing to lose now. How worse can it be?”
After Johar’s father, a businessman in Myanmar, was arrested, his family was forced to take shelter in Bangladesh in 2008. “Following riots in that country, I came to Delhi on a long-term visa in 2012 because we heard there was peace in India and we could get citizenship after a few years,” says Johar. “I have not only not got Indian citizenship, but also spent half of my life as a refugee in terrible conditions. In normal circumstances, I would have been living a comfortable life as a businessman in Myanmar.” Johar earns some money as a daily-wage labourer, but claims that due to his refugee status, he gets work for just 12 days in a month.
Mariyam, a 27-year-old single mother of three children, has perhaps the toughest life among the Rohingya. “Our tents are often flooded during the rainy spells. Both rations and our clothes get wet,” she grumbles. She is a ragpicker, her only option for earning some money. Like others in her camp, Mariam expresses disappointment at the lack of facilities in the camp despite most residents holding the UNHCR refugee card.
“Myanmar will not accept us if we are deported from India,” scowls carpenter Kabir Ahmed. “We were forced to flee from our home country when we faced a genocide. Hundreds of villages where Rohingya lived were burned down and children were thrown in the fire. Women were gang-raped and the men were killed,” said Ahmed.
Responding to the Union home ministry terming the Rohingya as “illegal foreigners” who should be detained and deported to Myanmar, Sabber Kyaw Min, a representative of the Rohingya community in India and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, says, “At a time when the world is recognising Myanmar’s war crimes against the Rohingya, India should stand in solidarity with the community which has been rendered stateless and has no recourse to justice instead of detaining and deporting us.”
Min claims that since 2018, the Indian authorities had deported at least 17 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar despite their holding refugee cards or person of interest documents issued by UNHCR India. At least 270 Rohingya asylum seekers and refugees remain in detention in Jammu & Kashmir and 24 in Delhi, including four children.
“In January 2020, the International Court of Justice acknowledged the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar and ordered the country to take all measures to prevent the murder of Rohingya or the causing of bodily or mental harm to members of the community,” Min adds. “But we continue to face persecution in Myanmar. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council and a country that has taken in refugees persecuted in their home countries, we urge India to give the Rohingya people the tools they need to claim their right to life. This would be in line with India’s long history of kindness.”