Earlier this month, India sparked panic among its long-suffering Rohingya refugee population by deporting a family of five to their home country of Myanmar, where they will most certainly face human rights violations and imprisonment. This expulsion came on the heels of the controversial forced repatriation of seven Rohingya men last October.
For Rohingya refugees currently residing in India, who the authorities claims are as many as 40,000, this second deportation seemed to harbinger a frightful pattern, especially as India’s far-right government had previously pledged to deport all Rohingya. Ruling party officials have made such threats despite international law prohibiting states from refoulement, sending persons to nations where they risk persecution. In Myanmar, such persecution is a near-certainty. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after an army crackdown more than a year ago.
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UN officials have described the Myanmar military’s action as genocide and called for government officials to be prosecuted. The United Nations and many other rights groups and international bodies still deem Myanmar unsafe for repatriation.
In response to the latest deportation, Rohingya refugees eager to avert similar fates began pouring from India into Bangladesh. Bangladeshi authorities estimate that over 1,300 Rohingya refugees have left India and sought refuge in its territory within the last month.
Most recently, 31 refugees – including 16 children and 6 women – were left stranded in the barren “no man’s land” along the India-Bangladesh border for four days after Bangladesh denied them entry and the two nations failed to agree on what to do with them. Eventually, India arrested the group on January 22. Like others apprehended as “illegal migrants”, these detainees will likely face lengthy jail terms.
Such imprisonment violates not only India’s own law but also international law prohibiting arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as the customarily recognised right to seek asylum.
Yet, given the pattern of behaviour the current Indian government has displayed towards the Rohingya, it is hardly surprising that many Indian officials feel emboldened enough to routinely violate international and national legal norms with impunity when dealing with Rohingya refugees.
BJP’s anti-Rohingya policies
The majority of India’s Rohingya came to India either prior to 2012 or following that year’s violence in Myanmar – all well before the 2017 genocide. At the time, Bangladesh was much less welcoming to refugees, but India appeared to offer great promise.
“Most of us went to Bangladesh first, but with little or very bad work, and the government didn’t support us like it supports the refugees who are there now,” one Rohingya refugee, who had been residing in India for over five years told me. “People were saying that in India, there were better economic opportunities – real jobs for us.”
Unfortunately for many, upon arrival, those opportunities proved largely illusory. Still, they found India more peaceful and welcoming than Bangladesh. Although living conditions remained challenging and work scarce, the government did little to prevent refugees from pursuing better futures. At the time, more refugee children were allowed to attend school, and some areas even offered basic assistance.
In the years since, however, attitudes towards minorities – particularly Muslims – have shifted dramatically in India, devastating the livelihoods and prospects of many Rohingya living there.
In 2014, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the majority in parliament and its firebrand leader, Narendra Modi, became prime minister.
Modi’s government made short work of vilifying Muslims and particularly Rohingya, recasting them as terrorists and “illegal Bengalis” (just like the Myanmar authorities do). The BJP has characterised Muslim refugees in India as threats to the very fabric of Indian society and used them as a tool to draw the country’s Hindu majority into their far-right movement.
Indeed, over less than a decade, the Hindu-nationalist government and its supporters succeeded in drastically eroding many of the most fundamental human rights of the Rohingya refugees, including access to work, education, shelter, sanitation, healthcare, and basic human dignity, among others.
Most recently, Indian authorities ceased to recognise the UNHCR-issued refugee cards of Rohingya, effectively taking away the little amount of legal protection some 18,000 registered Rohingya refugees had in the country. At the moment, virtually all activities and services (including education, work, and healthcare) require a residency-based Aadhar card. According to Rohingya advocates and refugees, these were previously issued to some Rohingya who met the government’s criteria, but this practice has since ceased.
Rohingya also face increased surveillance, at times going as far as harassment, with officials repeatedly collecting biodata, fingerprints, and paperwork. In areas where the police are most hostile – like Jammu and Hiryana – refugees fleeing to other parts of the country or to Bangladesh report extortion, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and beatings are also on the rise.
The government also bars Rohingya from owning property or building permanent structures. This limits them to either renting dirt patches in remote settlements and constructing jhuggis (slum-like shanties), or – for a fortunate few – renting urban flats from sympathetic landlords. Jhuggi dwellers typically face the greatest hardships, as most work in rag picking (waste collection) or other irregular, poorly-paid labour.
Rag picking in particular – perhaps the most common occupation among India’s Rohingya – poses serious health risks, as constantly handling and living amidst waste causes workers – including children as young as five – to frequently contract myriad unidentifiable maladies, while dire sanitation conditions further exacerbate widespread illness. In the squalid settlement of Faridabad, for instance, 180 refugees all working as rag pickers have no latrine in the entire camp, while nearly all residents’ income goes to healthcare.
Hate crime and extremist rhetoric
Since 2014, there has also been an uptick in hate crimes against Rohingya throughout India, with verbal and physical assaults becoming familiar occurrences for some. Last April, on the very night that an international Rohingya conference was held in New Delhi, the Kalindi Kunj jugghi settlement was burned to the ground. When its 226 residents relocated and rebuilt, their attackers attempted (though fortunately failed) to destroy their settlement again.
Further, in 2017, as Myanmar’s Rohingya genocide escalated, fear of a massive Rohingya influx permeated the northern Jammu region, where most of Rohingya refugees in India reside. Extremist rhetoric grew especially venomous, with one Jammu official even advocating for an “identify and kill” movement. Extremists have since adopted this mantra, protesting to demand full deportations and using billboards and front-page advertisements to convey propaganda and threats to local Rohingya.
In light of all these abuses, many Rohingya are trying their best to assimilate. Some managed to adjust their appearance and even learn Hindi well enough to pass as Indian, and as a result face relatively less harassment in their daily lives. Few others, who still hold Aadhar cards and have been able to secure steady, relatively reasonably paid work, also manage to get by. Yet even these relatively privileged Rohingya lack full protection, and they do not see a path towards citizenship or at least residency permit.
Thousands of less privileged Rohingya, on the other hand, continue to live in a state of fear, deprivation and debilitating uncertainty while facing daily harassment, discrimination and persecution.
Recent deportations have drawn some attention to the serious dangers that still await Rohingya in Myanmar and encouraged the international community to take a stand against forced repatriations. However, the world also needs to pay attention to the plight of Rohingya still living in India.
The Indian government appears intent on following dangerously in the footsteps of the Myanmar authorities: intentionally fomenting religious-nationalist fervour and placing thousands of already traumatised Rohingya in a state of constant fear and deprivation. If we don’t act now and pressure the Indian government to reverse its divisive rhetoric and dangerous policies, Rohingya will continue to be victimised by aggressive nationalism and Islamophobia in yet another country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.