Rohingya refugees flee camps in India after deportation threats

·6-min read

At least 168 Rohingya refugees have been detained since March 6 in the Jammu and Kashmir region of northwestern India. Local authorities have been threatening to send this persecuted Muslim minority back to Myanmar, which has been engulfed in chaos since a military coup on February 1. They claim that these refugees don’t have valid residency permits, even though many of them are stateless and carry refugee cards provided by the United Nations. Videos posted on social media show refugees laden with their belongings, fleeing Jammu.

Footage posted online shows people carrying an array of suitcases and colourful bundles as they flee camps in Jammu. One of the videos was filmed on March 7 by a member of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, an NGO based in New Delhi that works to settle and integrate Rohingya refugees in India and Bangladesh.

This video, which was posted to Facebook on March 7 was filmed by a member of the Rohingya community in India.

On March 6, police checked the documents of a number of Rohingya refugees, before transferring them to a detention centre near Hiranagar. The inspector general of the local police, Mukesh Singh, told news agency Agence France Press (AFP) that the information gathered from these checks would be shared with Myanmar, where these refugees would be deported.

Ali Johar is the co-director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative NGO. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the authorities didn’t accept the refugee cards provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The authorities said that these refugees didn’t have valid documents. But most of them had refugee cards, provided by the UNHCR. Local officials claimed, however, that because India isn’t a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, that they are under no obligation to provide asylum to people fleeing violence. The Rohingya refugees don’t have Myanmar passports [Editor’s note: because they are considered stateless in Myanmar], but, after their arrival in India, they were given refugee status by the United Nations.

In panic, hundreds of refugees terrified of being arrested left the refugee camps where they had been living, some of them for several years. Some families who didn’t know where to go hid in the forest, as shown in this video published on March 8 on the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative Facebook page:

According to Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, a number of refugees fled when they still had no word from their friends and family who had been taken in for questioning by the police the day before.

"I’m afraid that the police are going to arrest even more members of our community”

The FRANCE 24 Observers interviewed 42-year-old Abdul Rohim who works at the NGO Save the Children and has been living in the Rohingya refugee camp since May 2014.

They put my oldest son and his wife in the Hiranagar detention centre as well as some of my in-laws. They were arrested in the Jammu stadium after police checks, even though they had all of the necessary documents.

My family has refugee cards provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but they were still arrested.

I haven’t seen my family or been able to speak with them since they were arrested. I don’t know what conditions they are living in or what they have to eat.

This video, which was posted online by the independent journalist Aakash Hassan, shows refugees lining up in front of the Maulana Azad stadium in Jammu to carry out police checks.

Abdul Rohim decided to stay in Jammu, but he lives in fear of being arrested as well:

I am grateful to India for having let me live here for the past six years. But, now, we are afraid to go to the police station because we are afraid that we will be arrested as well. I’m afraid that the police will arrest even more members of our community.

"Local media has stoked hatred towards the Rohingya"

Ali Johar from the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative explains that anti-migrant rhetoric in India has ramped up over the past few years.

Local media outlets have stoked hatred towards the Rohingya, using degrading words for them like "insects" or "criminals" or describing them as "a threat to India”. This hatred has been infecting the local population in Jammu since 2017.

He says that the UNHCR hasn’t been as present for the Rohingya refugees since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic:

The UNHCR has been carrying out some of its operations at a distance because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which makes it much harder to take care of the Rohingya refugees and make sure that their refugee cards are renewed.

The region of Jammu and Kashmir has also experienced long periods of internet blackouts [Editor’s note: since 2019], so how can the HCR and Indian authorities expect refugees to renew their refugee cards online?

While Indian authorities have said that they have already started the deportation process, Ali Johar is afraid that the refugees will be held for a long time before India and Myanmar come to an agreement. A group of seven Rohingya refugees who were deported to Myanmar in October 2018 had spent six years in detention in Assam state in India.

The representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) met with authorities from the Jammu and Kashmir region on March 11.

Close to a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar

This wave of arrests follows on the heels of a demand made on February 13 by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The Court asked territorial officials to show within a month that they had taken steps to identify refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh in the region.

The nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has enacted an increasing number of anti-Muslim measures, has been calling for the 40,000 Rohingya living in India to be identified and deported since 2017.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Indian government to refrain from deporting Rohingya to Myanmar, where the ruling military junta may well subject them to violence and oppression. The NGO is calling on India to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Close to a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, most of them after a bloody campaign of persecution by the Myanmar army in 2017.

Written with help from Adil Bhat in New Delhi for FRANCE 24.