Deporting refugees: Persecuted Rohingyas run out of luck in India
Rendered stateless by Myanmar, many Rohingya Muslims fled to various parts of the world over the past few decades, including Jammu and Kashmir in India. But now it seems as though their welcome has run out.
Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi is understood have told the state administration in Jammu that it should start tracking down illegal Rohingya Muslims migrants immediately. The decision seems to be based on the perception of the security agencies that the presence of Rohingya Muslims in J&K is a potential security threat.
It is clear that the deportation this persecuted community from Jammu would lead to further devastation, and has to be strongly resisted.
The Rohingya Muslims belong to the Rakhine area of Myanmar, located on the country's western coast. They were rendered stateless as Myanmar doesn't recognise them as an official ethnic group and the government claims that these are 'Bengali' refugees from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh doesn't recognise them as Bengalis either, which is why the group faces hostility in both countries.
Rohingya Muslims have been systematically denied citizenship and human rights by successive governments in Myanmar. They have been subjected to untold misery and violence by the Myanmar’s military, the border police of that country and certain Buddhist extremist groups.
In 2012, a major flare up of violence resulted with over 1,00,000 people being displaced. Several fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and India.
Another major phase of violence that started in October 2016 led to more than 66,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh while thousands more were forced into IDP camps within Myanmar. The crackdown by military forces against the Rohingya Muslims in 2016 included atrocities like arson, killing of entire families, gang-rape, the rape of over 50 women who were interviewed, and the brutal murders of minors and infants as young as eight months.
Rohingyas in Jammu
There are more than 19,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in India (UNHCR Fact Sheet, October 2016). About 10,000 of these belong to the stateless Rohingya community who are living in different parts of India such as Jammu, Hyderabad, Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan since 2012.
However, since December 2016, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panther Party (JKNPP) and the BJP have been agitating for the eviction of the Rohingyas from the state. Hoardings have been put up in and around Jammu city, asking Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims to leave the area. It seems, that the JKNPP and the BJP think that the Rohingyas are Bangladeshi Muslims.
Carrying photographs of the JKNPP leaders these hoardings incited local residents to, “Wake Up”. They have issued notice to Rohingyas and Bangladeshis to “Quit Jammu” and call on the local people to “unite to save History, Culture and Identity of Dogras”.
The JKNPP and BJP politicians have been raising the issue of the supposed association of Rohingyas with militancy despite their being no substantive evidence. Despite the statement of J&K Home Minister that the Rohingyas were not involved in militancy, there has been a systematic campaign in Jammu to malign the Rohingya by criminalising them and branding them as a community of lawbreakers and illegal migrants.
The Rohingya community who earn a meagre living by working as daily wage labourers, factory workers, sanitation workers and cleaners in malls, hotels and shops are continuously being hounded and evicted from their squatters. The local police have imprisoned and detained a few Rohingya refugees under the Public Safety Act without trial or due process. This vilification campaign has created an environment of fear and traumatized the Rohingyas.
BJP, ‘the protector of rights’
During 2014 state election the BJP had aggressively projected itself as the “protector” of the rights of the people of Jammu who are largely Hindu. BJP politicians claim that the Rohingya Muslims were brought to Jammu by the National Conference and the Congress to change Jammu’s demography. The BJP government at the Centre has been under pressure from their party men to throw out the Rohingya Muslims.
According to reports, following the alarm raised by Dr Jitendra Singh, Union Minister in Prime Minister’s Office. In the first week of March, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had reviewed security situation in Jammu and Kashmir with National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi and Intelligence Bureau Director and other top officers of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) and Intelligence agencies.
Apparently, the meeting concluded that, “There were very specific Intelligence inputs that Rohingyas and Burmese, settled on outskirts of Jammu, could become security risk as anti-national elements were out to exploit them.” The recent order to “track down illegal Rohingya Muslims” seems to be a follow up on the earlier review.
India and the Refugee Convention
India is not a signatory to the UN refugee Convention of 1951 and does not grant refugee status. However, India allows the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India to receive applications from asylum seekers. After an exhaustive and thorough Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process UNHCR awards refugee status to individuals.
Most Rohingyas living in different parts of the country including Jammu are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. The documentation issued by UNHCR are accepted and respected by the Government of India which forms the basis of their stay in India.
The role of the UNHCR in India has also been given a limited recognition by the judiciary. Courts have stopped deportation proceedings and ordered the release of individual refugees in order to provide an opportunity to approach the UNHCR for refugee status determination or to allow resettlement to take place.
Earlier in response to the demand of the BJP for deportation of the Rohingyas from the state, J&K Home Minister had clarified that “since a good number of these foreigners are holding Registration Certificates/ Identity Certificates issued by TR FRO ITBF/ RPO, New Delhi or UNHCR Cards, initiation of deportation proceedings may not be appropriate as per International Law”.
Indian courts and the protection of refugees
It is pertinent to recall that in a similar situation in 1995, when the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) had issued eviction notice to the Chakma refugees settled in Arunachal Pradesh, the Supreme Court of India had directed the state government to “ensure that the life and personal liberty of each and every Chakma residing within the State shall be protected and any attempt to forcibly evict or drive them out of the State by organised groups, such as the AAPSU, shall be repelled”.
Time and again, the Indian courts have ordered that the refugees who face threats to their lives in their home country, be safeguarded and have allowed them to approach the office of the UNHCR for grant of refugee status.
The courts have also held that as Article 21 guarantees the right to life for non-citizens, the fundamental rights enshrined in the International Covenants and Treaties which have been signed and ratified by India can be enforced. It is claimed by many legal experts that the principal of non-refoulement is encompassed in Article 21. Under Art 51 (c) and 253 of Indian Constitution, international law and treaty obligations are to be respected, as long as they are consistent with domestic law.