“We don’t demand anything from the government here, no citizenship or any other rights. The government has so much land. Can’t they give us some?” says–Mahim Pratap Singh
A crying 30-year-old Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar staying in Kalindi Kunj with 45 other families, could only utter these words when asked about his life, while residing in one of the only official Rohingya refugee camps in India.
Who are refugees? Who are Rohingya Muslims? Why are they in India and other parts of South Asia?
Article 1 Para. 2 of the 1951 United Nations Convention defines ‘refugee’ as “A person who owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
As per the reports of AL JAZEERA these “boat people” are an ethnic Muslim group in the majority Buddhist country of Mynamar or Burma, who make up around one fourth of the total population.
Residing in the country's northwest region and speaking a Bengali dialect established during or before British rule as per popular beliefs. Almost all of them live in Rakhine, one of the poorest states, in the world.
They are not regarded as one of the country's 135 official ethnic groups and are denied citizenship under Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively renders them stateless.
To get citizenship, they need to prove they have lived in Myanmar for 60 years, but paperwork is often unavailable or denied to them. As a result, their rights to study, work, travel, marry, practice their religion and access health services are restricted.
About 140,000 Rohingya in the Rakhine state live in ghetto-like camps where they can't leave without government permission.
They cannot vote and even if they jump through the citizenship test hoops, they have to identify as "naturalised" as opposed to Rohingya, or are termed as the “associate citizens” which limits their entry into certain professions like medicine, law or running for office.
Myanmar received severe international attention in recent times for what is being considered as ‘genocide’ against the Rohingya Muslims. Categorized by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group in the world”, these “people of nowhere” are facing brutal assaults from the Burmese state and military. Frequent reports have come in of the Burmese army burning down Rohingya villages, rapes and murders of the nature of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Faced with the savagery, thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have rushed into neighboring countries, preferably Bangladesh, India and far way to Malaysia and Thailand.
As the most loathed immigrant refugees by these countries, unfortunately they are not welcomed anywhere, leaving the question of providing basic human rights.
The Rohingyas came to India from Myanmar from the rather porous India-Bangladesh border. An estimated 36,000 Rohingyas are believed to be living in India as per the latest UN Reports. Although in principle, all refugees in India have access to government health and education services, many Rohingyas struggle for these as they don’t have an official refugee status.
The last big displacement of the Rohingya was in 2012, when a large number of them arrived in India. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Rohingya are spread across six locations in India — Jammu, Nuh in Haryana’s Mewat district, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Chennai.
On October 9, 2016, about 400 armed men attacked three Border Guard Posts on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in the north-western state of Rakhine. Nine policemen were killed; eight of the attackers lost their lives.
Myanmar blamed the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (also known as Harakah Al Yaqin or Organisation of Faith) and launched a massive crackdown on the Rohingyas. Fearing for their safety, thousands of Rohingyas fled across the bordering countries. About 3 million of the 4 million Rohingyas in Myanmar fled to Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Thailand to escape the persecution.
During the crackdown in Rakhine, armed members of Burma’s security services are said to have rounded up Rohingya men and taken them away in vehicles, before then going from house to house gang-raping or sexually harassing women, and sometimes killing children who cried or tried to protect their mothers.
They can’t marry without permission, married women can’t conceive, and can’t even run small shops for livelihood. Rohingyas can’t even go out at night in Myanmar. There’s a 6pm-to-8am curfew.
In another case, recounted by a number of refugees in separate interviews by international organisations, the army of Rakhine villagers locked an entire family, including elderly and disabled people, inside a house and set it on fire, killing them all.
Despite international condemnation of these horrendous crimes, the Burmese Government has repeatedly denied allegations of persecution against the Rohingya minority, rejecting any evidence as “propaganda” and arguing that police beatings were ordinary in many countries; as reported by “The Independent”.
But what is India doing and what is India’s responsibility as the South Asian Super power?
According to a UN report, at present around 36,000 Rohingya refugees have been registered in India and are living in makeshift camps under precarious conditions. They have been given Refugee Status certificates to approximately 5,500 Rohingyas in India; the remaining are “asylum seekers”. But more importantly, the Indian government has given Long Term Visas to 500 Rohingyas, which, an UNHCR official in Delhi says, will help them open bank accounts and secure admission in schools.
Mohammad Johar, 23, says the visa has done little to improve their lives. He teaches at the madrasa for Rs 5,000 a month. “I have been in India for five years, but couldn’t find a job,” says Johar, who was married at the camp and now has a one-year-old child.
As encountered myself personally at the Kalindi Kunj shelter homes in Delhi, they inhabit multi-storey homes made of wood planks, cardboard, plastic sheets and just about any scrap material line the narrow pathways of the settlement that was built on land donated by the NGO Zakat Foundation. Electricity supply to the camps is erratic and there are just two toilets per camp. “The men and children go to the fields to relieve themselves,” told by Miya, holding his two-year-old son in her arms wearing a tattered cotton saree.
Earning a living continues to be tough. “No one is ready to give us a job, they all ask for Aadhaar cards. We have been working as daily wagers in Sohna and Gurgaon, and barely make Rs 300 a day. Some members of the Jamaat-e-Islami group had visited us in Myanmar and told us that life here will be good. That there is no discrimination between Hindus and Muslims and we will earn good money. But we can’t do anything without citizenship,” says Sona Miya, 30, a father of four, who claims to have been among the first to arrive in Mewat.
But food and shelter are their primary concerns which force them to live miserably in these shacks over their own country where their children and families are slaughtered before their own eyes.
It is a sad truth that even though the Rohingyas in India are desperately poor and lack even the most basic benefits that the Indian state confers on citizens and legal residents, they still feel life here is still better than back in Myanmar.
But what is the stake of the leaders and the government of India?
“The Indian Government is concerned about the Rohingyas at a humanitarian level. As far as the issue of giving them refugee rights is concerned, you have to speak to the Ministry of Home Affairs”.
–Vikas Swarup, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson
Chief minister of Jammu Kasmir, Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly this June that “About 13,400 Myanmarese and Bangladeshi migrants are living in camps in Jammu. Bathindi Ka Plot is home to the highest number of Rohingya migrants — 686 in total. However, security forces see this Rohingya population as a potential threat in the militancy-hit state close to a hostile neighbour.”
A military official called them “a ticking time bomb.”
These vague and inadequate answers from the ministry unveil the true and bitter story of these people and their future in India. The shredding and transferring of responsibility or the ignorance of the government is not an attitude or a deliberate strategic setup. Perhaps the law and order of our country is at fault.
Despite the fact that India is a host to diverse groups of refugees, the country has no specific laws or cohesive policy for refugees. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor to its 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees. Therefore, the protection of refugees is confined to ad-hoc measures taken by the Government of India, leaving refugees with little protection for their civil and political rights and virtually no legal provisions for their safety and welfare.
There are two levels to approach this issue.
- The State and Centre Overlapping
While law and order is a State subject under the Indian Constitution, international relations and international borders are under the exclusive purview of the Union government. This has resulted in a variety of agencies, both of the Central as well as the State governments, having to deal with refugee matters connected with law enforcement. Also, all policies governing refugees are laid down by the Union government though the impact of the refugee problem as such has to be borne by the State administration to a greater degree if not wholly.
They have to make sure that the laws of the land are enforced in regard to refugees without in any way ignoring or neutralizing security considerations.
In absence of laid out roles and responsibilities separately for the government, the rights of Rohingya people is left at the mercy or the unpredictable decisions of the different states they reside in respectively.
- No Refugee Policy
The Constitution of India provides for single citizenship for the entire country. The provisions relating to citizenship are contained in Articles 5 to 11 in Part-II of the Constitution of Indian. Article 5 states that at the commencement of this Constitution, every person belonging to the following categories, who has his domicile in the territory of India, shall be a citizen of India:
- Who was born in the territory of India; or
- Either of whose parents was born in the territory of India; or
- Who has been ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately preceding such commencement
Even though India has been the home for a large number and variety of refugees, it has dealt with the issues on a bilateral basis. It has been observing a ‘refugee regime’ which generally conforms to the international instruments on the subject without, however, giving a formal shape to the practices adopted by it in the form of a separate statute.
This is because there is no separate law to deal with ‘refugees’. For the same reason, cases for refugee ‘status’ are considered on a case-by-case basis. UNHCR often plays a complementary role to the efforts of the Government, particularly in regard to verification about the individual’s background and the general circumstances prevailing in the country of origin. That agency also plays an important role in the resettlement of refugees in different parts of our country.
India does not have on its statute book a specific and separate law to govern refugees. In the absence of such a specific law, all existing Indian laws like The Criminal Procedure Code, The Indian Penal Code, The Evidence Act etc. apply to the refugees as well.
India is not just a home to Rohingya refugees, but refugees from different parts of the world like Iraq, Sri Lanka and others. Furthermore it is a signatory to a number of United Nations and World Conventions on Human Rights. Hence, it is high time for India to understand and take its responsibility on refugee issues and related matters. India has also voted affirmatively to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms rights for all persons, citizens and non- citizens alike.
Therefore, our country is in a dire need of a refugee policy and related matters. It is not only important to clearly state the roles and responsibilities of the state and the centre but also to ensure provision of basic human rights to its each and every resident. At an international level we need to stand out and prove our position not just at humanitarian basis but at a constructive level in today’s turbulent times specially concerning the refugee problem evolving all over the globe.
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