The enforced exodus of Rohingyas is a huge challenge to the countries which endorse and profess humanitarian laws. From Myanmar to the borders of different countries, the ill treatment these people are getting is against the principles and guidelines of several conventions regarding refugees. As refugees, Rohingyas must be given all the basic necessities and safeguarded by the state where they have taken shelter. The recent crackdown on them in Bathindi- Jammu is illegal as well as a violation of international conventions on refugees.
Mohammed Haneef, one of the Rohingya refugees living in Jammu, asked us to have patience while listening to him. Nobody ever had time or sympathy to listen to his miseries, he said, whether in Myanmar or across the border or anywhere else. He started his story with the account of his father being burnt alive by the Burmese authorities while escaping from Burma. When we asked to hear more, tears started rolling down from his eyes. Don’t ask more, he said.
He had many things to tell the world, though, particularly to the UNO. We want nothing, he said, just the treatment due to a human being. “We have families and we too have our own land. They (ambassadors of human rights) could not save our land, so we left everything behind and even lost our loved ones.” If this isn’t a humanitarian issue, then nothing is. The UNO must be dissolved because it doesn’t serve its foundational objectives and promises any more.
He further went on to say that since his people left their land, they never lived a single day without fear. “In Burma, we can’t even get land for a grave. How can one live in a place where even the dead are being burnt down.”
The media’s false portrayal of Rohingyas
Sanaullah, 40 years old, talked about his struggles and hardships. “Fear has always been our companion but we don’t fear any more, because we have seen wild beasts being kinder than humans. We are living in Jammu since 2013 and we do hard work. Touch my hands, they are as hard as iron. I don’t feel any pain even if my hands are crushed. We do various work, as blacksmiths, carpenters, daily wage labourers. Our women work as house cleaners in some residential homes. It is unfortunate that some media channels tagged us as thieves and reported that police were lodging us in detention centres because natives have filed complaints about our behaviour, which is an absolute lie. Anyone can talk to the people here, they love us and they know we are honest and good people,” he said.
Recently, the police arrested 168 Rohingya refugees, irrespective of age. This has terrorised the community. The arrests have been arbitrary and illegal. Rohingyas were told that they were being taken to hospitals for Covid-19 tests, but were lodged in the Hiranagar Jail in Jammu. Mariam, 33 years old, said that last year when the whole world was battling with the deadly coronavirus, the Rohingyas had not even a single case among them in Jammu. “We are neat and clean people. They are embarrassing and harassing us in the name of these tests. We love our land and we are patriotic people; we want to return to our land as soon as the situation is normal there,” she said.
Abdul Karim, 21 years old, was in deep despair and anguish when we met him. For the past 3 days he had not seen his 11-year-old sister and 70-year-old grandmother, both of whom had been picked up by police along with 166 other people. He even went to the local police station and the Hiranagar Jail but police denied having any information of their whereabouts. He said that from Myanmar they escaped unhurt but in Jammu it feels they are dying a slow death. “We are not animals; even animals get better treatment than us,” he said.
Refugees in Bhatindi told us that police personnel had approached them last Saturday with a list of names. “We were told to renew our documents. Some were taken to have Covid-19 tests, for which they agreed to go because they believe this is in the interest of public health,” Karim told us.
Muhammad Faisal, one of Karim’s neighbours, said, “Some left with the police and others were about to leave when we heard that police had detained our people, including Inayat’s mother and sister. We were afraid and decided to stay put.”
Asma, a 7-year-old girl, said she studies in Class 1 at an English-medium school in Bathindi. She was an outspoken girl who spoke fluently. Though she was born in Jammu, she knew the story of the exodus from Burma. When I asked her about her aim in life, she answered: “I can lose everything but not my education. I want to write the stories of my people, about the mayhem and melancholy they have experienced.” Every year, she ranks among the top 10 students of the class in every examination.
The devastating thing is that even the schools do not admit Rohingya children. “Who said education is free and universal?” the mother of Asma asked.
The mass raid that recently took place at the homes of these families and the carrying away of them to detention centers is part of a wider pan-India crackdown on Rohingya refugees by the Narendra Modi government. Long rattled by frequent displacements, countless Rohingya now face deportation to Myanmar, which is currently reeling from a military coup.
The military junta in Myanmar has seized unprecedented control since it carried out the coup on Feb 1, taking over hospitals and communications. More than 50 civilians have been killed during protests that demand a return to democracy. Rohingya refugees who return to Burma face even greater danger. The same military junta responsible for burning down their villages, murdering thousands of their people, and raping scores of their women and girls is now in charge of the country.
“Any plan to forcibly return Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled,” said one of the refugees in Jammu, adding, “We don’t want to be burden on any nation. We have our home in Myanmar and we belong there. Nevertheless, we are appealing for help on humanitarian basis, for a place to live until the situation is peaceful in Myanmar.”
The United Nations has maintained its position that deporting the Rohingya violates the international legal principle of refoulement—sending refugees back to a place where they face danger. However, the Modi government has rejected that position, arguing that it is not signatory to the specific UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has said, “Myanmar’s long-abusive military is even more lawless now that it is back in power. The Indian government should uphold its international law obligations and protect those in need of refuge within its borders.”
Myanmar does not recognise roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya, one of the largest ethnic minority populations in the country, as citizens. The stateless people have fled in flocks, escaping repetitive crackdowns by the junta in the last decade. Since 2016, more than 6,500 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of 5, have been killed by the military, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
India, where about 40,000 refugees reside, has been one of the primary destinations for the Rohingya. But recent mass detentions have signalled that the country has become an increasingly unsafe place for Muslims under the leadership of Hindutva nationalists.
When the darkness comes, Abdul Karim gets scared. “I’m afraid to sleep because my grandmother and sister are not at home,” he said. Sitting at a crossroads outside the concentration area, he awaits the return of his grandmother and sister as thousands of other Rohingyas stare at an uncertain future, with their lives upended yet again.
The recent detentions of these people in Jammu is subject to a court challenge, as apparently and legally they are legal migrants under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights 1948, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 optional Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, the European Convention on Human Rights, and many more. The same detentions are being challenged in the Supreme Court of India. Any further detentions, thus, are arbitrary, unreasonable and a grave violation of international conventions and the domestic laws of the land as well.