Dispatch

India Abandons the Rohingyas

A deliberately ambiguous refugee policy allows the government to deny shelter to Muslims fleeing persecution.

Hasina Khatoon's family in their shack in the Jammu city of Indian- administered Kashmir on April 23. Hasina was separated from her family and deported to Myanmar last month.
Hasina Khatoon's family in their shack in the Jammu city of Indian- administered Kashmir on April 23. Hasina was separated from her family and deported to Myanmar last month.
Hasina Khatoon's family in their shack in the Jammu city of Indian- administered Kashmir on April 23. Hasina was separated from her family and deported to Myanmar last month. Kamran Yousuf photos for Foreign Policy
By , an independent journalist based out of New Delhi, and , an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi.

JAMMU, Jammu and Kashmir—On a scorching hot day in April, in a shanty made of bamboo sticks, cardboard, tattered pieces of cloth, and tarpaulin, 12-year-old Rubina Begum was consoling her 9-year-old sister, Noor. A week earlier, their mother, Hasina Begum, had been deported to Myanmar, the country she fled in 2012 to escape genocidal violence.

“She will most probably be either killed or tortured there,” a visibly worried Rubina told Foreign Policy. In March 2021, Rubina’s mother was among 170 Rohingya refugees from a camp in Jammu who had been detained for verification of documents and then sent to a “holding center” located in a jail. Jail superintendent Prem Kumar Modi told FP that more than 235 Rohingya refugees whose verification process had been completed were in the holding center. “The next step is to deport them,” Modi said. “That will happen if and when the government issues such orders.”

The Myanmar army has been accused of killing and torturing thousands of Rohingyas, a minority group in the Buddhist-dominated country. Since 2008—the year Myanmar held a constitutional referendum that ensured the perpetuation of military rule and with it, the military’s “genocidal acts” against citizens—nearly a million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar for neighboring countries, with the vast majority going to Bangladesh.

Hasina Khatoon's family in their shack in the Jammu city of Indian- administered Kashmir on April 23. Hasina was separated from her family and deported to Myanmar last month.

Hasina Begums family sits in their shack in the Jammu city of Indian-administered Kashmir on April 23. Hasina was separated from her family and deported to Myanmar last month.Kamran Yousuf photos for Foreign Policy

JAMMU, Jammu and Kashmir—On a scorching hot day in April, in a shanty made of bamboo sticks, cardboard, tattered pieces of cloth, and tarpaulin, 12-year-old Rubina Begum was consoling her 9-year-old sister, Noor. A week earlier, their mother, Hasina Begum, had been deported to Myanmar, the country she fled in 2012 to escape genocidal violence.

“She will most probably be either killed or tortured there,” a visibly worried Rubina told Foreign Policy. In March 2021, Rubina’s mother was among 170 Rohingya refugees from a camp in Jammu who had been detained for verification of documents and then sent to a “holding center” located in a jail. Jail superintendent Prem Kumar Modi told FP that more than 235 Rohingya refugees whose verification process had been completed were in the holding center. “The next step is to deport them,” Modi said. “That will happen if and when the government issues such orders.”

The Myanmar army has been accused of killing and torturing thousands of Rohingyas, a minority group in the Buddhist-dominated country. Since 2008—the year Myanmar held a constitutional referendum that ensured the perpetuation of military rule and with it, the military’s “genocidal acts” against citizens—nearly a million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar for neighboring countries, with the vast majority going to Bangladesh.

Many have come to India. Rubina’s parents brought their children to India with them in 2012. India is home to around 40,000 Rohingya refugees who live in camps and slums in different cities. In Jammu, 5,000 of these refugees live in makeshift houses and work as day laborers or do menial jobs to make ends meet.

Rubina said when the police informed her about her mother’s deportation, they also added that she, too, would be sent back to Myanmar soon. “We don’t want to go back till the situation gets normal there. We will be killed otherwise,” Rubina said.

She said many of her relatives were shot to death when they tried to flee Myanmar in 2012. Her aunt Noor Fatima who lives in a shanty next to Rubina’s said she was afraid Hasina might meet a similar fate. “There is not even any safe place where she can hide,” she said.

In a statement released after Hasina’s deportation, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said “the [Indian] government’s decision to expel Rohingya refugees despite mountains of evidence that their lives and freedoms would be at risk in Myanmar shows cruel disregard for human life and international law.”

A few weeks after Hasina and others were detained and lodged in jail, the Indian Supreme Court refused a plea seeking their release and stopping the government from deporting them to Myanmar. Indian Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the government, argued that Rohingyas were not refugees but “illegal migrants.”

This was not the first time the Indian government has maintained that these refugees, who have been called the most persecuted minority in the world, are “illegal migrants.” The government has called their status in India “illegal” and termed them a threat to national security.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention of the United Nations, and without any laws governing the status of refugees, follows an ad hoc policy. But even though India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, experts say it is bound to safeguard refugees because it is a signatory of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT). UNCAT states, “No State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Moreover, the 1951 Refugee Convention is understood to form a part of customary international law.

Rohingya refugees gather inside a camp in Jammu city.

Rohingya refugees gather inside a camp in Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir, on April 23.

“There is a customary international law obligation, and it is unequivocally clear,” Aman, who goes by one name and is an associate professor of international law at the Jindal Global Law School, told Foreign Policy. “There is more to international law than India signing the treaty.”

India has been selective in which refugees it gives shelter and support to. Tibetan refugees or Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka are welcome in India. Tibetan refugees even receive support from the government and in several states, small businesses owned by Tibetan refugees have become tourist attractions. Thousands of Hindu migrants who have fled Pakistan have been living in Indian-administered Kashmir for decades, and they have been granted identity certificates and promised a package of 2,000 crore rupees and voting rights.

By contrast, India is averse to providing shelter to Rohingya refugees, who are Muslim. Thousands of Afghan refugees who have been living in India have been denied refugee status as well.

Because of this selective approach, B. S. Chimni, an academic and refugee law expert at Jindal Global Law School, argues that India’s refugee policy is “strategically ambiguous.” India’s effort to keep its refugee policy ambiguous is “a conscious effort,” Aman said, “because it offers leeway to selectively treat the refugees.”

In Jammu, there have been several protests by right-wing leaders who have demanded the deportation of Rohingya refugees. Between 2016 and 2021 in several parts of India there have been at least 12 instances of fire breaking out mysteriously in Rohingya camps. The Rohingyas did not rule out the possibility of deliberate sabotage by right-wing groups. In one such case, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth leader tweeted that the shanties were set on fire by his group. He wrote, “Well done by our heroes. … Yes we burnt the houses of the Rohingya terrorists.”

This agitation comes against a backdrop of growing hate crimes and violence against the broader Muslim community. “Rohingyas in India are constantly used as bait by the BJP to further their Islamophobic agenda,” Kavita Krishnan, a human rights activist and Communist Party politician said. The right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party gins up an association between refugees and terrorists. When communal violence broke out during a Hindu religious procession in New Delhi recently, BJP’s Delhi chief, Adesh Gupta, accused Rohingya Muslims of throwing stones, firing bullets, and assaulting Hindus with swords.

An unwelcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees is consistent with India’s newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA offers refuge and citizenship to people fleeing religious persecution in India’s neighboring countries but is restricted to Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The law denies the same privilege to Muslim refugees fleeing persecution in these countries. A proposed National Register of Citizens from BJP leader Amit Shah would allow the government to identify unauthorized immigrants—Muslims, in this case—and subject them to possible detention and deportation.

Aman said even if India signed the Refugee Convention, which is very unlikely, it would not necessarily solve the refugee crisis. “The problem today is a political one,” Aman said. “How does the Refugee Convention protect against the popular idea that a certain refugee identity is dangerous?”

Hasina Khatoon's children show their UNHCR refugee documents at their shack in Jammu city of Indian-administered Kashmir.

Hasina Begums children show their U.N. refugee documents at their shack in Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir, on April 23.

The Indian government argues that the CAA is rooted in humanitarian concerns. A report quoted BJP National Joint General Secretary Shiv Prakash as saying that the legislation was advancing human rights: “The largest section of the persecuted religious minorities in these countries are Dalits or women.”

But the exclusion of Rohingya or Afghan refugees raises serious questions over the intent of the legislation. It also leaves out other Muslims, including Shiites and Ahmadis, facing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In February, Shashi Tharoor, a former diplomat and member of parliament from the opposition Indian National Congress, proposed a refugee and asylum law. He argued the law was necessary because of the “government’s continuing disrespect for the international legal principle of non-refoulement.” (The principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no country should return or extradite any refugee to a country where they would face torture or where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.) Because the bill was from a private member—a parliamentarian not in government—it could not pass.

As Sri Lanka faces an economic crisis and shortages of food and fuel, many of its citizens have landed in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to seek refuge. Because Tamils, too, are excluded from the CAA, their influx has once again raised questions about the vacuum caused by the absence of national legislation.

Meanwhile, in her shanty, Noor huddled with Rubina and their brother, Hussain, in a corner. Noor clutched her mother’s U.N. refugee agency card. In her mother’s absence, Rubina takes care of household chores. FP asked her what she wanted to become when she grew up. “Nothing. I just want my mother back, and we want to live.”

Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @Qadri_Inzamam

Haziq Qadri is an independent multimedia journalist based out of New Delhi. Twitter: @haziq_qadri

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