India’s ominous threat to Rohingya Muslim refugees

Originally published in Asia Times

The tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to India to escape widespread and systematic violence and discrimination in Myanmar face an existential threat from a new source: India’s government.

Early this month, a senior government minister announced that Indian authorities would move expeditiously to deport the country’s sizable Rohingya refugee population back to Myanmar regardless of the risks to the refugees.

“There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ … what would happen here is that the next move would be in relation to [the deportation] of Rohingyas,” Jitendra Singh, minister of state for development of the North Eastern Region, stated on January 4. Singh justified that call for Rohingya deportation on the terms of India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The CAA, passed by India’s Parliament on December 12, explicitly denies the rights of Muslim “irregular immigrants,” those who lack UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) identity cards.

Singh’s comments constitute a visceral threat to the safety of the thousands of Rohingya who have sought safety in India over the past decade. The government estimates that 40,000 Rohingya refugees live in India, of whom fewer than half possess UNHCR identity cards designed to protect them from “harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation.” Those refugees have fled Myanmar government-imposed institutionalized discrimination, including restrictions on movement, education and health-care access, as well as spasms of deadly violence such as the bloody purge perpetrated against Rohingya in northern Rakhine state in late 2017.

India’s threatened mass deportation of Rohingya would be a catastrophe for those sent back to Myanmar.

The Myanmar government has resisted any moves toward accountability for the security forces implicated in the scorched-earth campaign of mass killings, torture, and sexual violence in northern Rakhine state that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh in fear of their lives. Since then, the Myanmar government and security forces have moved systematically to erase any traces of claims that the Rohingya might have had to their former homes in northern Rakhine.

Satellite images have revealed that the locations of former Rohingya villages in Rakhine have been “flattened and scraped by bulldozers.” In what appears to be a blatant form of post-conflict elimination of physical remnants left behind by the dead or fled Rohingya, those villages have been replaced by facilities for the security forces as well as hundreds of new homes built for mostly Buddhist residents from other areas of Rakhine.

The Myanmar government now forcibly confines the remaining Rohingya population in Rakhine state to fenced enclosures with restrictions on travel, education and access to health care. Amnesty International has described the plight of those Rohingya in Rakhine as “women, men and children segregated and cowed in a dehumanizing system of apartheid.” Rohingya who seek to escape the oppression in Rakhine for other parts of Myanmar or to neighboring countries are, if caught by the authorities, subject to prison terms of up to two years for the “crime” of “not having necessary documents for traveling.”

The Indian government should also be mindful that it would be deporting Rohingya to a country that denies them legal recognition by having unilaterally stripped them of their citizenship in 1982. That citizenship denial has helped spur a distressingly popular racist narrative in Myanmar that depicts the Rohingya as illegal migrants rather an ethnic minority with a well-documented centuries-long presence in the country.

Jitendra Singh’s comments are likely to compound the fear felt by Rohingya refugees who lack UNHCR protection. India’s deportation of seven Rohingya men to Myanmar in October 2018 fueled panic among other Rohingya refugees and prompted hundreds of families to flee to neighboring Bangladesh to avoid a similar threat.

Those deportations followed the Indian government’s designation of Rohingya refugees as “a national-security threat” in September 2018 based on unsupported allegations that some Rohingya were in contact with Pakistan-based extremist groups. The Indian government fanned those fears last week by alleging that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was funding dozens of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh “so that they can push them into India to carry out terror attacks.”

Those allegations may well prompt the Bangladeshi government to tighten further the restrictive measures it has imposed in recent months on its massive Rohingya refugee population in Cox’s Bazar. The restrictions have included government directives to telecom service providers to cut services in the camps as well as the erection of barbed-wire fencing and guard towers to enforce an existing dusk-to-dawn curfew.

The Indian government should drop its threat of mass deportations of its Rohingya refugee population. Instead, it should apply its significant diplomatic and economic leverage with Myanmar’s government to pressure it to establish the conditions that will allow voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. That requires compelling Myanmar to provide accountability for the late-2017 slaughter in northern Rakhine and the restoration of full citizenship rights to the Rohingya.

India has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in pressuring Myanmar to open the way for eventual repatriation of its Rohingya refugee population, rather than subjecting the Rohingya to mass deportation directly into harm’s way.

Get Updates from PHR