Rehman, 46, came to India three years ago, fleeing the largest human rights crisis of Myanmar, the country where he was born, but which does not recognise him as its citizen because Rehman is one among thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have sought refuge in India over the past few years. A resident of the slums in Kalindi Kunj, Delhi, Rehman said, “Life can be unimaginably difficult if you do not have a country to call your own. I am not much educated, but how difficult is it to understand that since I am living, I must have been born someplace on this Earth. Wherever I was born, that should be my birthplace and I should have the right to live there.”
Since Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told Parliament two weeks ago that “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals, including Rohingyas,” and that there were around “40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country”, speculation has been rife.
Explaining the seriousness of the issue, Priya Ravichandran, a scholar at Takshashila Institute, said, “It is serious for two reasons, one, ‘do nothing’ was a critical part of India’s policy when it came to handling refugees from neighbouring countries. This gave India a moral high ground without upsetting the balance of power in the neighbourhood. India’s dependence on Myanmar for its ‘Act East policy’ meant that the issue of violence against the Rohingyas, or India’s providing safe haven for these people, were never part of any discussion. The question of deporting them now means these will have to be discussed, not just with Myanmar, but with Bangladesh too. The deportation statement also raises the question of what India plans to do with other illegal immigrants.”
Explaining India’s security apprehensions, A.B. Mahapatra, director, CASS-India, said, “The exact number of Rohingyas in India is turning out to be controversial. Rough estimates from various sources point to approximately 80,000 Rohingyas. This is why India is not ignoring the issue because we know better from our past experiences in Assam and Maharashtra.”
Mahapatra pointed out how after the 1971 war, Assam was flooded with refugees from Bangladesh that resulted in local people becoming minorities in their own home by 1985. Maharashtra, too, had faced trouble due to the influx of Bangladeshi refugees.
Resistance from Jammu has also added to the Indian government’s concerns. Priya Ravichandran said, “There have been issues raised, specifically in Jammu, of how the influx of the Rohingya people has resulted in demographic changes in areas. There is always a cost to hosting refugees. India’s lack of a coherent policy and loopholes in the system, which grants illegal refugees ID cards, Aadhaar, and facilities to vote in elections, have been exploited by politicians. Citizens end up having to compete with illegal migrants for jobs in the informal sector, and housing. There is also the issue of wages being driven down by refugees.”
The Rohingyas are largely living in Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. In Jammu, the Rohingya refugees have faced severe criticism and public protests against them by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Kashmir National Panthers Party. In February 2017, a petition had been filed in the state high court seeking the Rohingyas’ deportation, arguing that “there had been a sharp increase in illegal migrants from Burma and Bangladesh”.
Priya Ravichandran added, “India’s open door policy for the persecuted people in the region, and the image of the country as a safe haven for people fleeing violence and loss will come undone. It is highly likely that this deportation exercise will be used as an excuse for India to properly formulate a refugee policy, and define norms and procedures for migrants into the country.”
The international human rights and NGO community has not taken the announcement lightly and has largely criticised India’s stand, with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemning the government’s decision.
Only 16,500 Rohingyas living in India are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and this means that tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees are unregistered. Minister Rijiju told Reuters news agency, “They [UNHCR] are doing it, we can’t stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees.” He added: “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.”
The Rohingyas are denied citizenship in Myanmar, despite claiming roots that go back centuries. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled their homes since the first bout of violence started in 2012.
Thousands of Rohingyas were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces launched a crackdown in the wake of a deadly attack late last year. Many of them crossed the border into India. Others have also fled to southeast Asia, often on rickety boats run by people-smuggling gangs.
Though Myanmar has agreed to provide refuge to Rohingyas living in India, their condition is proper documentation of all the people who will be sent across the border which is ongoing and is expected to be finished by September this year.
Mahapatra said, “In the backdrop of the recent terror attacks that took place in Myanmar, India’s security concern is legitimate. Investigation has revealed that some Rohingyas had been influenced by ISIS and were included in Myanmar’s recent terror attack. Our four states share borders with Myanmar and deportation can cause trouble on our borders and needs to be conducted efficiently. The best way is to allow Rohingyas living in India to participate instead of cornering them.”
Reflecting on the uncertainty surrounding the future of Rohingyas in India, Haleema, a Rohingya refugee, said, “As much as Myanmar is our home, we cannot return unless we know we will be safe there. India is a good place. We feel safe here and there are opportunities and freedom to educate our kids and earn a livelihood. We don’t know what to expect even if we go back home.”
Adil, a 27-year-old refugee living in Kalindi Kunj, said, “Myanmar is home. We have roots there. But the violence that people have witnessed in Myanmar has left us in fear and trauma. If we have access to better education, our future in any country will be better than our past.”