For persecuted Rohingya Muslims, a place to call home in India

Cardboards and tarpaulin arranged around sticks make up the modest shanty of Mohammad Tahir – a Rohingya Muslim living in a refugee camp in the south of New Delhi. Mosquitoes swarm his humble abode and smoke from the adjacent shanty fill up the small space. As Tahir looks forward to a good night sleep, he has a final chat with his teenage son Shakir about his day at school.

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Rohingya Muslims are not recognized by the Myanmar government who considers them as “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, while Bangladesh sees them as “illegal foreigners”. Myanmar is accused of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya by killing and shooting men, slaughtering children, raping women and burning and looting houses to force them out.

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Tahir’s family is among the 66 families who fled the communal violence in Myanmar in 2012 and are living at the Shaheen Bagh refugee camp in the Indian capital. Around 14,000 Rohingya refugees are registered with the government of India, 500 of whom have long-term visas which enables them to open bank accounts and send their children to school. Aside from Shaheen Bagh refugee camp, there are a few more in other parts of India such as Hyderabad, Jammu and Haryana.

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Shaheen Bagh refugee camp is on a private land and Tahir knows this means they can be asked to vacate anytime. Another refugee camp, named Madanpur Khader, stands on land provided by non-governmental organization Zakat Foundation of India.

The foundation has helped send at least 40 refugee children to a private school and while they are adjusting well, some who initially lived in Bangladesh and then moved to India are finding it difficult.

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For these refugees, there are few livelihood options. Most of the camp dwellers work as manual labourers or construction workers in different areas around Delhi. Few have small shops in the camps. The UNHCR, with its partners, organize different vocational training to help them gain employable skills. But these efforts are not enough and the refugees are dependent on aid from others. Like the rest of India, they too are suffering from the consequences of recent demonetization.

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Despite their meagre resources, the refugees have enrolled their children in schools in the nearby localities. In the two camps mentioned above, there are madrassas for religious education as well. At times, volunteers also come to teach the children living in the camp. But Tahir is not too optimistic as he feels the limited resources would hamper education after a certain time.

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The abysmal sanitation conditions, fear of snakes and security of women are problems on the mind of every refugee at the camps. With weather changing, they fear their difficulties will only increase.

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The refugees say they are living peacefully in India; much better than Bangladesh which was their first stop en route to India. “It is of course not like our home but we don’t have to fear for our lives,” says a camp dweller. India does not have a separate statute for refugees nor is it party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. However, it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from neighbouring states and respects UNHCR’s mandate for foreign nationals mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

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Though grateful to be away from Myanmar violence, Rohingya Muslim refugees are worried about their future and wonder how long they can continue living like this. “Forty-four families are living in the space only enough for ten families,” shares a refugee.

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India has expressed fear that the refugees might be used by terrorist organizations and a Hindustan Times report said suspected Rohingya radicals and Lashkar members had a hand in the blasts that rocked Bodh Gaya – one of Buddhism’s holiest sites in 2013. However, there has been no concrete evidence to validate these claims.

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In Jammu, the refugees’ problems have taken a strange turn. With the issue of giving identification cards to Pakistani refugees in the limelight in the state, trouble is brewing for the Rohingya refugees. Some political parties have told them to leave the place while a mysterious fire recently destroyed 80 shanties in the state, killing a woman and three children.

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Despite all the roadblocks here at Shaheen Bagh refugee camp and elsewhere, Shakir will continue to go to school. But he is well aware his future hangs in the balance just like the rest of his community.

Story published in Tribune Pakistan, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1365287/persecuted-rohingya-muslims-place-call-home-india/

 

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