Dispatch

‘It’s Like We’re Caged Everywhere We Go’

Rohingya refugees in India are facing persecution yet again.

By , an independent journalist based in New Delhi.
Rohingya refugees sit outside an area marked by police at their camp in New Delhi after a fire broke out there on June 13.
Rohingya refugees sit outside an area marked by police at their camp in New Delhi after a fire broke out there on June 13. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

NEW DELHI—After decades of persecution in Myanmar, culminating in the military’s genocidal crackdown in 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge around the world. Many of those who fled are struggling to resettle in their countries of asylum—especially in India, where nearly 17,000 Rohingyas live in refugee camps. Many say opportunities and health care here are worse than in other countries, such as in Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees in India not only face deplorable living conditions but are also increasingly persecuted for the same reason they were in Myanmar: their religion. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has risen since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Over the past few years, his government has introduced policy changes aimed at rendering Muslims powerless and invisible—from revoking the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, to passing a controversial citizenship law widely protested across India that is said to render many Muslims effectively stateless. In the process, Rohingyas have become a target of the anti-Muslim sentiment right. Now, they worry they’ll be forced to flee once again.

Sabber Kyaw Min, director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative and a refugee himself, can pinpoint when the hate against Rohingyas began. “Since 2017, our community is being targeted by extremist groups in certain states in India,” he said. “Camps were set to fire, refugees were beaten, and hate speeches increased against us, and many restrictions have been placed on the mediocre lives we live.” These restrictions include biometric verification and the placement of police personnel outside of refugee camps.

NEW DELHI—After decades of persecution in Myanmar, culminating in the military’s genocidal crackdown in 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge around the world. Many of those who fled are struggling to resettle in their countries of asylum—especially in India, where nearly 17,000 Rohingyas live in refugee camps. Many say opportunities and health care here are worse than in other countries, such as in Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees in India not only face deplorable living conditions but are also increasingly persecuted for the same reason they were in Myanmar: their religion. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has risen since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Over the past few years, his government has introduced policy changes aimed at rendering Muslims powerless and invisible—from revoking the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state, to passing a controversial citizenship law widely protested across India that is said to render many Muslims effectively stateless. In the process, Rohingyas have become a target of the anti-Muslim sentiment right. Now, they worry they’ll be forced to flee once again.

Sabber Kyaw Min, director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative and a refugee himself, can pinpoint when the hate against Rohingyas began. “Since 2017, our community is being targeted by extremist groups in certain states in India,” he said. “Camps were set to fire, refugees were beaten, and hate speeches increased against us, and many restrictions have been placed on the mediocre lives we live.” These restrictions include biometric verification and the placement of police personnel outside of refugee camps.

In 2017, India’s then-minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals, including Rohingyas.” Although this went against Indian and international law, it provoked an unprecedented crackdown against the community. In October 2018, Modi’s government prevented refugees from obtaining the Aadhaar card, an essential biometric-based identification document necessary for access to basic services—such as banking, health care, education, and jobs—in India.

Since then, Sabber Kyaw Min said, the pandemic has only deepened survival concerns in a country that offers no legal safeguards to refugees. (India is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention.) His community in Delhi, like refugees communities for Afghans, Somalis, and Sudanese, is always on edge due to fear of detentions, threats of deportation, and increased police crackdowns.


Rohingya refugees across the country say life hasn’t been kind to them. In New Delhi, around 56 shanties were burnt down at Madanpur Khadar refugee camp on June 12 due to an electrical short circuit—the second incident of fire at the camp in three years. The refugees grabbed whatever documents they had as they saw their makeshift lives turn to ashes. “In Myanmar, we ran fearing the military,” said one refugee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And here, we were running to save our future from falling apart.”

Nearby, in Delhi’s Sharan Vihar camp, flooding claimed a life on Sept. 1. An 18-year-old refugee, Mohammed Jashim, died after stepping into water that was touching a live wire in his tent while his parents looked on helplessly. “The parents kept cursing their fate. They kept saying that the boy wanted to earn well for them,” said Noorul Amin, a refugee from the camp.

Mohammed Rofiq, a 29-year-old Rohingya living at a camp in the town of Punhana, in India’s northern state of Haryana, also spoke about flooding. Rofiq lives under three colorful tarpaulin sheets secured with nylon ropes and strengthened with bamboo sticks, similar to most other homes in the camp. He’s patched the holes in his tent home almost every week since July due to monsoons. “When it rains, it fills the tent, and our belongings float away in front of our eyes,” Rofiq said.

Rain also comes with the threat of scorpions, snakes, and poisonous insects. Rofiq recalled a recent incident on Sept. 17. “A snake bit a sleeping 3-year-old in our camp. The child turned blue and died instantly,” he said. “This is the kind of accommodation we live in; this is our life as refugees.”

In another camp in Haryana, Hussain, a community leader who asked to provide his first name only to avoid police retribution, spoke of similar problems—and financial ones. Hussain once dreamt of becoming a mathematician but instead worked as a day laborer mixing cement at a construction site. Now, he struggles to feed his family. Finances have been dismal, he said, since he arrived in India 10 years ago.

Due to lack of documentation, refugees in India can only apply for informal jobs as day laborers, sanitation workers, tailors, tobacco rollers, or, like Hussain, in construction. That means no fixed salary, contract, or medical insurance. This has led many refugee families to work underpaid jobs or survive on the minimal monetary assistance provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Financial insecurity has especially affected women, 18-year-old refugee Noor Marjan said. Poverty, for instance, has forced some women to use cloth in place of feminine hygiene products like sanitary pads.

The pandemic has made everything worse. Nasrullah, a refugee from New Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar camp who similarly asked to provide his first name only for his personal safety, said the entire community was staying inside the camp to avoid falling ill, minimizing movement and using strips of cloth as face masks. He later explained: “It was not COVID-19 that we feared. We feared having to die due to dismal finances for treatment at hospitals.” He’s been caring for his family’s health by making them drink a homemade concoction of herbs. He knows the brew has no scientific value, but, he added, it’s the only remedy he could afford.

“Would have been better if the virus had killed us,” said Salma Bi, a refugee in a neighboring tent to Nasrullah’s. “Life until now has been all about fleeing places. We fled Arakan [Myanmar’s Rakhine State]. We fled Bangladesh. Now, here we have a life, but we are not really living. It’s like we’re caged everywhere we go.”


Escaping genocide, Hussain dreamt of living a life without fear in India—studying, earning money, and not having to hide his religion in public like he did in Myanmar. “My mother forced me to flee so that I could live,” Hussain said. Like many other Rohingyas, Hussain dreamt that life in India would be worth living, even if it meant starting from scratch. “We used to watch news about India, watch Indian films,” he said. “From Myanmar, we saw India as a democratic, progressive country that valued secularism.”

Since 2014, the BJP has made its objective of marginalizing Muslims very clear. From erecting a Hindu temple on the Babri mosque’s debris to interfering with Muslim marital laws, the BJP has lived up to its election manifesto. Even as the world battled COVID-19, the BJP was busy disseminating lies about how Muslims were trying to spread the virus deliberately. For Muslim refugees, this relentless discrimination has only compounded the existing difficulties of statelessness and limbo.

Anti-Muslim persecution has only worsened this year. In March, around 170 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, were placed in Hiranagar subsidiary jail in Kathua, India, after the government alleged they were illegal immigrants. Parents were separated from children who cried in empty tents and went without food. The refugees are still in detention today.

In August, news rolled in of atrocities against Muslims every week. In major Indian cities, from Ajmer, to Kanpur, to Indore, to Delhi, Muslims were beaten, forced to chant Jai Shri Ram (Hindu mantras), and witnessed Hindu right-wing groups calling for their genocide.

Cornered by right-wing extremists, Rohingyas are now worried not just about their living conditions but also about being forced out from India. “Don’t look at us as Muslims or refugees. Look at us as humans in danger,” Hussain said. “We are survivors of a genocide.”

Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Twitter: @tarushi_aswani

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