Dhaka/Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – Last October, Zakir Hossain was getting a haircut at a saloon in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad when the TV inside the shop flashed a report on India deporting seven Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar.
“That was the last straw. The prospect of being deported to Myanmar was terrifying,” said 25-year-old Hossain, who along with his family had taken an arduous trip to Hyderabad from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State in 2014.
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Following a crackdown that began in 2012, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled their villages, escaping Buddhist mobs who were often aided by the Myanmar military.
The Muslim-majority Rohingya were forced to live in squalid camps, which have been equated with concentration camps, with severe restrictions on their movements.
Since then, more than a million Rohingya have left Myanmar, taking desperate journeys via sea and land for safety and a better future.
“Life inside the refugee camp in Balapur in Hyderabad was not bad. After what we had witnessed and sustained in Rakhine, the city was obviously a better option,” Hossain said.
But the comfort of feeling safe in India didn’t last long for Hossain.
It's better to die here in India than go back to Burma (Myanmar).
“Since April last year, Indian police started to visit our camp regularly, asking us to fill forms and give our biometric data. News spread across the camp that we would be deported back to Myanmar,” he told Al Jazeera.
Panic began on October 4 when India deported seven Rohingya, who were in jail in Assam state since 2012 for entering the country without official documents.
Rights groups have slammed India for handing over Rohingya to the Myanmar government in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from deporting a refugee or an asylum seeker to territories where her life and freedom could be threatened.
Myanmar military has been accused of “textbook ethnic cleansing” in their campaign of mass killing, gang-rape and arson against Rohingya. Within months of brutal military offensive launched in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Myanmar government has denied the charges, but rights groups say the country has continued its discriminatory policies against Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship in 1982.
According to the UN, the Rohingya are currently the most persecuted community in the world.
Exodus from India
Hossain says he gathered his family, including his mother and brother, and decided to head back to Bangladesh before “things turned worse” in India.
It took Hossain over three months to find a way to reach Bangladesh. “At the border, India’s Border Security Force detained me and my mother for a day but later allowed us to cross the border,” he said.
The Border Guard of Bangladesh, Hossain says, handed them over to police that later sent them to a transit camp in the coastal Cox’s Bazar district, where more than a million Rohingya refugees have taken shelter in sprawling camps.
Since the beginning of this year, at least 1,300 Rohingya like Hossain have crossed into Bangladesh from India.
This week, at least 61 Rohingya were arrested by the Indian police. On Tuesday, 31 of them, stuck in the “no-man’s land” between India and Bangladesh, were arrested and sent to jail.
Last year, the Indian government ordered all its states to identify and deport Rohingya, saying they were “more vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organisations”.
Maryam Khatun, 55, Hossain’s mother, is relieved. “Since the last year, we had been living amid tension due to constant threat from the local police there.”
Khatun said there is no point in going back to Myanmar. “We left that place long ago. There is nothing there for us.”
India's approach to the Rohingya situation has been shockingly callous.
Faies Ahmed, 75, left India on January 7 after staying in a camp in the northern Indian city of Jammu.
“Bangladesh seems like the safest place for us now. We have a lot of relatives here in different camps,” said Ahmed, who now lives in a transit camp in Cox’s Bazar.
“I stayed in the refugee camp over there (Jammu) for six years. But things changed last year when police started visiting our camps. They used to ask us to provide our personal information.”
He added that the situation there was turning very hostile. “The local Hindu leaders started to threaten us. They said they would kill us if we don’t leave India.”
At a Rohingya camp in India’s capital, New Delhi, there is a palpable sense of fear. Mohammad Salimullah runs a small grocery shop at the camp located in the Kalindi Kunj area.
He said the Delhi police asked the refugees to submit a six-page “personal data” form a few months ago.
“Our people got scared that authorities here might deport us back to Myanmar, like they did with some Rohingya in Assam and Manipur,” Salimullah said.
Salimullah said things were better when he arrived in India in 2012.
“During the initial years, we used to get jobs here. Our children could go to schools and a single document – the refugee card – was required for verification.”
“Now, our children can’t go to schools because all educational institutions ask for Aadhaar card (national identity card for Indian citizens) and we do not have it,” Salimullah said.
“We aren’t blaming India or Bangladesh for anything. It is our destiny.”
New Delhi-based activist Zafar Mahmood says his organisation, the Zakat Foundation, is trying to help the Rohingya, but Indian authorities create roadblocks.
“Zakat Foundation is ready to construct an accommodation on its own land for Rohingya, but the government is not allowing the construction,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.
He blames the ruling Hindu nationalist government’s “anti-Muslim politics” for the hostility against Rohingya.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, criticised India for its “shockingly callous” attitude towards Rohingya.
“The world is aware of the UN conclusions that Myanmar military is responsible for crimes against humanity against the Rohingya people,” Ganguly told Al Jazeera.
“Yet India has not only failed to condemn the atrocities and call upon Myanmar to ensure justice, several Rohingya refugees have been sent back to the same authorities that forced them to leave in the first place.”
Ganguly said India’s political leadership has failed to condemn allegations that the Rohingya are a security risk. “India should protect the refugees and provide UNHCR proper access,” she said.
But India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, Nalin Kohli, ruled out refugee status to the Rohingya, saying New Delhi is not a signatory to international protocols.
“We do not want to opine on whether Myanmar is safe for Rohingya or not. Myanmar government has said they are willing to take them back,” he said.
Kohli reiterated the government’s stand that Rohingya are a “big security threat”.
The prospect of being deported to Myanmar was terrifying.
‘We will not throw them out’
Abul Kalam, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Bangladesh, confirmed the arrival of Rohingya in his country. “Rohingya refugees from India are entering Bangladesh every day since the beginning of this year,” he told Al Jazeera.
“As of now, the number has well crossed 1,300,” said Kalam, “And more are coming.”
Kalam, who is in charge of all the refugee camps, said the Rohingya from India have been kept in a transit camp in Ukhia near Myanmar border.
“This camp is run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They are providing food, shelter and protection to them.”
UNHCR spokesperson Firas al-Khateeb told Al Jazeera that Rohingya arriving from India are “being provided with services at the transit centre”.
When asked what plans the Bangladesh government has for the new refugees from India, Kalam said, “We have given shelter to over a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. So, I can assure you that we will not throw them out.”
Kalam, however, said the Bangladesh government may speak to its Indian counterparts on the matter. “This is not up to me. It’s a decision that has to be taken at the highest level.”
An official at Bangladesh’s foreign ministry told Al Jazeera that the newly appointed Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen will visit India soon, where he is likely to discuss the refugee crisis.
Back at the Rohingya camp in New Delhi, Sanjeeda Begum fears she may be the next to be deported to Myanmar.
“Everyone knows the situation in Myanmar. We don’t want to go there in the present circumstances,” said the 25-year-old mother of two daughters.
“It’s better to die here in India than go back to Burma (Myanmar) without any rights or guarantee of your life.”
Additional reporting by Abdul Aziz from Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, and Bilal Kuchay and Zeenat Saberin from New Delhi, India.