Zaffar Alam did not think life in India would be just as grim as it had been in Myanmar. As a Rohingya Muslim refugee, the 45-year-old had fled with his family the repression at the hands of Myanmar’s military forces, only to end up being tormented by Indian authorities and the right-wing Hindu party in power.
Alam has been living in a makeshift camp in Jammu – the southwestern area of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) region – since 2008, where he risks being deported to Myanmar amid a deadly military coup and ongoing conflicts in that country. Indian authorities in the restive Himalayan state have arbitrarily arrested nearly 220 Rohingya refugees since 6 March, including Alam’s septuagenarian parents, and transferred them to holding centres. The refugees were moved to a jail that had been turned into a holding facility after they were invited to take Covid-19 tests.
“The condition here for us is almost the same as it was in Burma,” says Alam, whose detained father was operated on and has been in treatment since the third week of February. “[Indian authorities] are killing us silently by separating us from families. This is just as suppressive as what we endured in Burma.”
Yaqoob Ali, a 21-year-old labourer, has not gone to work since 6 March, when the J&K administration detained 168 Rohingya refugees from the camp. “I fear the police will arrest me from anywhere they find me,” he says.
The administration in J&K maintains the refugees were detained after authorities initiated a procedure under the Foreigners Act to locate “illegal immigrants” in the Union Territory, and that those detained would be deported to Myanmar.
On 11 March, the Delhi police arrested 71 Rohingya refugees who were demonstrating against the 6 March detentions in Jammu outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi. The police detained 12 more refugees in the capital on 24 March, and arrested another five on 31 March.
Following a petition by rights activists, the Supreme Court of India agreed to hear a plea seeking the release and protection of these refugees. The plea, filed by senior advocate Prasant Bhushan on behalf of Mohammad Salimullah, a Rohingya refugee in India, as part of a 2017 petition, sought to halt the deportation of Rohingyas. After initially reserving the order, the court refused on 8 April to grant any interim relief to detained Rohingyas, paving the way for their deportation to Myanmar. “The fear is that once they are deported, they may get slaughtered. But we cannot stop it,” said the court.
During the hearing on 26 March, solicitor general Tushar Mehta said on behalf of the Indian government that Rohingyas were “not refugees” but “illegal immigrants”. Mehta maintained that the Indian government was verifying their nationality with Myanmar. “We are always in touch with Myanmar and if they confirm so, then they can be deported,” Mehta said.
Taken by deception
Witnesses said a group of police personnel showed up at the camp in Jammu on 6 March with a list of names of around 170 Rohingya. The Rohingya were asked to assemble at the Maulana Azad Memorial Stadium in the city for coronavirus tests. A group of police officers showed up again at the camp hours later and put the “listed” Rohingya, one after another, in vehicles and drove them to the stadium.
Ayatullah, 27, who gave only a single name, said the police and other officials deceived them. As soon as the official returned with the vehicle, Ayatullah “immediately realised” the exercise had nothing to do with testing. At the stadium, the refugees were subjected to a biometric test and separated into groups. Then they were put into vehicles and taken to the Hiranagar jail in Jammu.
The J&K administration said later that day that it had placed 168 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, in “holding centres”. These centres, which have a 250-person capacity, were set up by J&K’s Home Department under the Foreigners Act. More than 220 refugees have been kept in holding facilities for deportation to Myanmar.
The detained refugees include pregnant women and disabled people. The mass arrest has divided families, with parents in holding centres while their children remain free or children detained while their parents are free.
The Indian authorities’ detention campaign has frightened Rohingyas, many of whom have gone into hiding or relocated to avoid being detained. Many at the camp live in fear of officials cracking down and deporting them.
Some Rohingya refugees have moved to neighbouring north Indian states such as Haryana and Delhi. Anil Vij, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister in Haryana, said his government was collecting information about the presence of Rohingya Muslims in the state. “Action will be taken accordingly. After all, India is not a dharamshala [a charitable lodging] where anybody can stay where they like,” he said.
A campaign of hatred
The Rohingya have lived relatively peacefully in the Jammu resettlement camp since 2008. But after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government took power in 2014, Hindu right-wing groups and Hindu nationalist political parties intensified their campaign against what they called “illegally settled Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals in Jammu” and sought their expulsion from the state. The Hindutva groups linked to the BJP have claimed that Rohingyas were brought to J&K to change the demography of the region.
Religious right-wing Hindutva activists have accused Rohingyas of being agents of Islamic terrorism and carrying out terrorist attacks in parts of India. Indian security agencies have also regularly accused Rohingyas of having terror links and deemed them a security risk for the country.
Rights groups say the widespread criminalisation of Rohingya refugees as “terrorists” is directly motivated by religious prejudice. This stigmatisation of Rohingyas, they say, has not only made their situation precarious but also made them feel vulnerable amid the ongoing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. According to the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI), there were 170 Rohingya men, women and children either in jail, holding centres or correctional facilities in India as of October 2018.
Criminalising a persecuted community
Many of the camp’s families have lived in settlements since 2008 and have UNHRC cards. They were allowed to come to Jammu after multiple rounds of interviews and verifications by the UNHCR officials in Delhi, according to Abdul Monaf, a 35-year-old labourer. “We are not illegal immigrants, as some locals and parts of the media say,” he says.
“For us, things have been ugly,” says Muhammad Taha, who is in his early 20s and has been living in the camp since 2012. Following the 6 March events, Taha says police officers have been telling them they will be evicted and deported. “We are afraid of police raids at night. You never know when they’re going to turn up. During the night, the rest of us are on watch.” He describes the situation as “a living nightmare”.
In a separate makeshift room at the camp, Muhammad Ibrahim and Sajida Begum, who is more than eight months pregnant, continue to be detained with one of their children, Shamin Ara, who is eight years old. The couple’s elder daughter Haleema, 10, has been left to take care of her younger siblings. Haleema says that before the arrest her mother had pregnancy issues and would often complain of pain in the abdomen. “I am always worried about my mother. I do not know how she is,” says Haleema, as she holds on to her three-year-old sister, Noora.
Myanmar’s government abolished the Rohingyas’ citizenship rights in 1982. Since then, the Rohingya Muslim minority has fled to Bangladesh and other countries, including India, to avoid persecution, violence and deprivation. There are an estimated 40 000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in displacement camps across India. Of them, nearly 18 000 are registered with the UNHCR in India.
India, however, is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which lays out the rights of refugees and the legal obligations countries have to protect them. The “assimilation and naturalisation of refugees” into citizens is an obligation expected only of nations that ratified the Refugee Convention. This implies that Rohingyas within India do not have a right to seek rations, jobs, housing or education, and continue to be stateless and without status.
Under the Modi government’s contentious 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, India more than fulfils this obligation, but only for six minority communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains and Christians – from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The new law prevents Rohingyas from accessing citizenship rights as Myanmar is not included in the process of citizenship naturalisation and neither can Muslim refugees seek citizenship.
Rights groups say the political situation in Myanmar is still not favourable for Rohingya Muslims and have called on the Indian government to halt plans to deport the refugees. The continuing detentions have “instilled an environment of fear in the Rohingya community”, said Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Delhi-based RHRI, who also deemed India’s deportation campaign a “failure of the UNHCR” to protect the community.
Facing a grim future
Some Rohingya had established makeshift shops outside the camp. While many of the shopkeepers are sold out and not buying fresh supplies, others have simply shut their shops.
“How can we live here now?” asks shopkeeper Abul Alam, 43. “They treat us like animals. In fact, worse than that. We did not come to spend our lives here, but came here for security and we shall return to our country as and when the situation gets better there.” For now, Alam says, “the Rohingya have nowhere to go. The situation is getting worse in Burma, so how can we go back?”
A party of Rohingya teens begins playing football as the sun sets on the Jammu displacement camp. One of them, Muhammad Iqbal, 21, says the group spends the majority of their days sleeping so they can stand guard at night. Playing football just before their duties begin is a stress-relieving activity, according to Iqbal, and it helps them forget the events of 6 March.
On 5 April, a midnight fire ravaged parts of the camp in Jammu, burning down at least 16 makeshift tents and affecting 64 people, including 37 children. Although no one died in the fire, the RHRI reported that 12 families’ UNHCR cards were burned, while several others lost all their belongings.
India attempted to deport a 14-year-old Rohingya girl in early April, but her deportation was halted after Myanmar’s border forces refused to accept her, citing “internal disturbances”. The UNHCR protested against the expulsion, saying that the situation in Myanmar was too explosive and returning the child may place her at “immediate risk of serious harm”.