India’s government is looking to deport an estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar, including those registered with the UN refugee agency, a senior official has said.
Deputy Interior Minister Kiren Rijiju told Reuters news agency over the weekend that the Rohingya living in India were illegal immigrants and must be deported.
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“As far as we are concerned they are all illegal immigrants,” Rijiju, a high-profile minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, said. ” They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is illegal migrant will be deported.”
Their registration with the UN refugee agency was irrelevant, he said.
“We can’t stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees,” he said.
Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, slammed the plan, noting that India as a member of the UN Human Rights Council was aware of the risks Rohingya refugees faced if deported.
“India was part of the council that authorised a fact-finding mission after tens of thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh from Mynamar, following a security operation in which hundreds were killed and raped,” she told Al Jazeera.
“So India is aware of the risks of abuse, and India has an international obligation to protect them.”
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has issued identity cards to about 16,500 Rohingya in India, which it says helps “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation” of refugees.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled their homes since the first bout of violence was sparked in 2012. Since then they have live in despicable conditions in camps that The New York Times dubbed 21st-century concentration camps.
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
Rijiju told parliament last week that the central government had directed state authorities to identify and deport illegal immigrants, including Rohingya.
HRW’s Ganguly said she was worried that Rijiju’s comments could encourage vigilante violence against the Rohingya community in India.
She also questioned the practicality of rounding up and expelling thousands of people scattered across the country.
‘India is aware of abuse risks’
The UNHCR’s India office said it has not received an official word about a plan to deport Rohingyas, and had not received any reports of deportations taking place.
It said the principle of non-refoulement – or not sending back refugees to a place where they face danger – was considered part of customary international law and binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not.
India said on Friday it was in talks with Bangladesh and Myanmar about the deportation plan.
Rijiju, however, declined to comment on the deportation process.
“We can’t throw them out just like that,” he said. “We can’t dump them in the Bay of Bengal.”
Rohingya are generally vilified in India and over the past few months there has been a string of anti-Rohingya protests.
The rumblings began last year, when India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which runs a coalition government in Kashmir with the regional People’s Democratic Party, began to raise the issue.