However strongly one might sympathise and empathise with the sorry situation of Rohingyas, our conversations with scores of them in New Delhi, Jammu and Mewat make it amply clear that it is Bangladesh they fled to first to save their lives and thus are refugees in that country.
In India, they are nothing but illegal immigrants and should be treated as such for all practical purposes.
Anwar Hussain was just three years old when circumstances in 2005 forced his family to flee the troubled state of Rakhine in Myanmar in rickety structures, those pathetic excuse for boats. The only saving grace was they didn’t have to journey far. They rowed their way to the port city of Cox Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh. From the comfort of their palatial homes and reassuring roof over the heads built with the sweat of their forefathers, fate took them by the scruff of their necks and frog marched them into destitution.
The family spent seven years in Cox Bazar which at present shelters over 9 lakh Rohingya refugees who have arrived here in several waves of exodus.
Hussain and his six siblings were enrolled in schools. On the side they did odd jobs to support their parents who eked out a living by working at construction sites. In 2012, when Hussain had just completed Class III, the family decided to move to India. "My eldest brother married a Rohingya girl in Bangladesh. At that time, her family was in the process of moving to India as they had discovered a way out. My brother followed his wife and went to India too,” Hussain explains.
"While in India, my brother would tell us over the phone that life is much better there. He urged us to join him. He would tell us that we won't be able to do much with our lives in Bangladesh, and if we wanted to secure our future, we must come to India."
The family sent Hussain's elder brother Ali Johar to India to ascertain things. In a week, they got Johar’s stamp of approval as well.
By the end of 2012, the entire family migrated to India. All they had to do was pay Rs 5,000-6,000 for each member of the family to a 'zimmedar', aka brokers, who facilitated the travel from Bangladesh to Bengal, and initially settled them in Haryana's Mewat. After one and a half years, the family shifted closer to his brother in Shaheen Bagh area in New Delhi. Today, Hussain and three of his siblings are enrolled in various universities including the elite ones like Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia.
The deep loss and struggle that characterise Hussain's story, and that of thousands of his brethren, has the power to evoke sympathy in the most hollow of hearts. But we need to step back a little and ask a highly pertinent question: Is Hussain a refugee in India?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website defines 'refugees' as "people fleeing conflict or persecution" who "must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk”. Sure, he came as a refugee in Bangladesh. But in India, for all practical and legal purposes, he is just another illegal immigrant out of lakhs who have sneaked across the border from Bangladesh.
It’s quite evident that Hussain’s family did not enter India escaping conflict or persecution, but did so in search of better economic opportunities and thus a better life; in his own words, "to secure our future". This, however, hasn’t stopped him and his family from securing refugee cards from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Hussain's is a not an isolated case. In fact, our investigation into reasons why Rohingyas prefer India over Bangladesh revealed that this is a norm rather than an exception. Over the past few weeks, we spoke to scores of residents in camps in New Delhi and Haryana (most conversations are recorded); they admitted to coming to India after learning about the vastness of its landmass and all the opportunities that come with it, as well as the open, accepting nature of its society and people.
“Where will we find a place like India?” says 19-year-old Mohammad Kabir who stayed in Bangladesh for more than a year. His family migrated to India because "yahan kaam dhanda acha hai" (there are better work opportunities here). They have been living in India for a decade now with his mother (his father passed away in Rakhine when he was young) and seven siblings. Kabir says he gets to move around freely and, in his long stay here, nobody has asked him to to show his UNHCR card even once.
"I was eight or nine years of age when my family left Rakhine (in Myanmar). We were fed up of atrocities meted out to our community. The Buddhists would enter our houses in the night and take away fruits from our trees and our animals tied up outside the gate. They would beat us up. One day, we left our belongings behind and made the overnight journey to Bangladesh. One has to do it furtively as the police beats anyone who tries to escape Rakhine. There is a lot of walking involved before you can board a boat to Bangladesh,” Kabir narrates his story.
"Life in Bangladesh wasn't easy. Neither were there many employment opportunities at that time, nor were we educated enough. My brother used to earn about Rs 5,000-6,000 per month grazing goats but it just wasn't enough. Then the idea of shifting to India struck me. One day, we boarded a bus from Cox Bazar till the border and then secretly crossed into India near Malda (in West Bengal) from where we took a train straight to Jammu,” he adds.
Kabir tells that even before the family moved here, his relatives and acquaintances had been living in India for several years. They were the one who suggested the family to come to Jammu. Brokers in West Bengal arranged everything.
In Jammu, Kabir picked up Hindi and found work as a car mechanic. In 2012, he came to Delhi to take part in a major protest by Rohingyas outside UN office demanding they be given refugee cards "like they had given to other Burmese residents".
"We got our cards and never returned to Jammu," he says.
In the same camp, 26-year-old Mohammed Sadiq's reason to come to India was simply that he had heard in his childhood that "India is a good country" where "no one is wronged". Sadiq, the eldest of eight children in his family, says they escaped Rakhine amid violence perpetrated by Buddhists in 2012. Since he had already decided on India, he stayed in Bangladesh only for "two to three days". "We Rohingyas have been escaping Rakhine in thousands. We go to any place which we think would be good for us. I chose India," he says.
His neighbour Habsha confesses India wasn't the first choice for their family. It was Saudi Arabia. "After we moved to Bangladesh, my father left for Saudi. But he could not make it into that country. We could no longer return to Myanmar as they don't allow us back. He eventually decided on India as we had relatives living here already," she says.
About 70 kilometres from New Delhi, Rohingyas staying in Haryana's Nuh district have similar stories to tell. Most of the inhabitants in Chandeni and Nangli camps that Swarajya talked to, left Rakhine in 2012 when security forces reportedly launched a major drive against the Rohingyas.
Mohammed, a 22-year-old youth who requested not to reveal his full name, narrates how his family left Rakhine after Muslims going for Friday prayers were attacked. "My father said we should all run for our lives," he says. The family fled to Bangladesh, stayed for "two to three" days and boarded a bus to the Indian border where security forces stopped them.
"We told them [security officers] of our plight. We explained how our own country was persecuting us. It was only after some serious pleading for hours that a kind-hearted soldier allowed us to pass through,” he narrates. From the border, they headed straight to Jammu. After a few days, the family came to Delhi and finally settled in Nuh.
But why not stay in Bangladesh? Surely, there was no question of anyone persecuting them given it’s an Islamic state. Mohammed says a security officer asked him precisely this. “I told the officer that it’s a small country and too populated. We wouldn’t find much work there. Also, we cannot move freely there,” he says.
Mohammed requests us to excuse him as he has to leave for work. An expert in making bamboo huts, he has bagged a contract for erecting a temporary bamboo house for a telecommunication giant at a three-day exhibition near the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport in New Delhi. Though he didn’t have any valid documents, he got the work after showing his refugee card. “I am being paid Rs 35,000 and will make around Rs 25,000 on the net after subtracting all the costs - raw material, lodging, traveling, etc.,” Mohammed says.
Though, Mohammed appears to be a jolly-good fellow who always wears a smile on his face, one needs to ask Indian firms if it’s right for them to hire illegal Rohingya refugees so close to the IGI airport giving them access to highly sensitive areas when intelligence reports have hinted at them being potential security threat. Such casual attitude is a cause of concern.
Like Mohammed, Muhammadullah, who runs a shop in Chandeni camp, struggled initially but is now earning well. He has wired over Rs 1.5 lakh to his parents in Bangladesh in the past two years. Interestingly, while he got his refugee card made in 2012 itself within weeks of coming to India, his parents in Bangladesh haven’t got theirs even after staying in that country for five and a half years. “In Bangladesh, finding work even for a couple of days in a week in hard. Here, I can earn every day,” he tells us.
Haroon Rashid, in another camp in Chandeni, entered India in 2008. When in Bangladesh, he heard stories that in India, day-long work can fetch enough money for the next 10 days. The situation in Bangladesh was bad, he says. "There is no law and order. Thieves can rob you of your entire daily earnings while returning home in the evening. This doesn’t happen in India. We get better pay too," he says. Rashid had to pay only Rs 500 to cross the border. “There are people on both sides of the border who are in touch to transport people,” he says explaining the modus operandi.
Mohammed Aslam, 28, had a total of over 80 people in his overall family. He and 31 of his immediate family members fled Rakhine in 2012 in one go leaving their 26-acre property behind. The rest of the family came a few months later and are still living in Bangladesh. “We were in Bangladesh for only nine days, putting at Kutupalong refugee camp. It’s very old. The latest ones being built are nothing but slums.”
According to Aslam, the family couldn’t stay in the camp for long as it was only for those who had registered as refugees. “They didn’t give us refugee cards. So we had to leave. We had heard a lot about India that it’s a vast country and have a lot of Muslims and that we can earn well and feed our families there.”
Aslam got his refugee card made in no time in Delhi. “Our mufti from Jafrabad [an area in Delhi] said it would be better if we left Delhi and went to Mewat as it’s a Muslim area. We have been living here since then. Here, locals are very friendly. They don’t disturb us.”
However, one can feel a sense of foreboding among the inhabitants in Rohingya camps. “We were living peacefully until now,” Mohammed says. Earlier this month, they were handed over nationality verification forms by the police. The forms have been provided by the Embassy of Myanmar and distributed on the directions of India's Home Ministry. The forms are with ‘zimmedars’ of camps who have not distributed them to anyone so far. Rohingyas have refused to even take the forms let alone fill them, fearing deportation to Myanmar.
Their anxiety lies here: at the spot where the form requires them to write their names, there is a declaration that ‘I am a Bengali in Myanmar’.
At the heart of the Rohingya crisis is an unsettled debate on their ethnicity and origin. The Rohingyas claim they are natives of Myanmar's Arakan region and are thus Arakanese Muslims. On the other hand, the Myanmar government cites British administrative records to declare them as Bengali Muslims originating from Chittagong (in what is today Bangladesh) and thus "foreigners". Things turned particularly ugly in 1970s and 80s when the Myanmar government officially declared the Rohingyas as "non-nationals" and stripped them of their nationality. They have been fleeing Rakhine since then.
Ironically, at the time of India’s Partition, and just before Burma’s independence from the British, Rohingya Muslim leaders had appealed to Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah requesting his help to merge a part of Arakan region into East-Pakistan because the area had substantial Muslim population. Now, they don’t even want to live in Bangladesh and object strongly to being referred to as Bengali Muslims.
In India, the Rohingyas tell horrific tales of their persecution at the hands of Buddhist residents and the Army back in Rakhine. Of murder and rape, of political subjugation and ill-treatment. Refusing to fill the forms, they have told the Indian government to rather 'kill, bomb or poison them" here in India.
"Unless Myanmar recognises us as its citizens and stops calling us Bengali Muslims, we will not fill these forms," Mohammad Sadiq told Swarajya, a view shared by all the Rohingyas we spoke to. Some demand that the Myanmar government gives them equal rights as Buddhists, return their properties and belongings that have been stolen and guarantee them protection of life. “Only then we can consider going back home by choice. If we go back now, we will be killed," they say in one voice.
But, however strongly one might sympathise and empathise with the sorry situation of Rohingyas, the Indian state cannot afford to be swayed by emotions alone and sacrifice the rule of law. It’s amply clear from their accounts that it is Bangladesh they fled to, to save their lives. Thus they are refugees in Bangladesh. In India, they are nothing but illegal immigrants.
Lawyer J Sai Deepak, who is representing the Indic Collective Trust in the Supreme Court seeking deportation of Rohingyas, says that Rohingyas must at least be sent to Bangladesh.
Deepak says that the principle of non-refoulement in international law - that stops a country from returning a person to a place where they would be at risk of persecution - does not apply in the case of Rohingyas in India since India is a non-signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. However, he says that even if it applies, the Rohingyas must be sent to Bangladesh as most of them have come to India from Bangladesh and Bangladesh is evidently not persecuting the Rohingyas.
Asked if the UNHCR-card carrying Rohingyas can still be called refugees given the turmoil in their own homeland. Deepak says, "No one can bestow upon themselves the status of a refugee unless they qualify as refugees under the law of the country they seek shelter in. The so-called constitutional patriots in this country do not wish to address this fundamental legal reality."
"While those opposed to deportation of Rohingyas argue that not all of them are terrorists, they want us to treat all of them as refugees when they are clearly not," he adds.
Commenting on the Rohingyas' own testimony that they come to India seeking better opportunities, Deepak says the Rohingya illegal immigration is a continuum of Bangladeshi illegal immigration that could alter demographics in sensitive parts of the country and have long-term security implications for India.
The fear of change in demographics was first raised in Jammu. Many Rohingya immigrants Swarajya spoke to have gone on record stating they were told to go to Jammu. A senior officer in the intelligence wing of Jammu and Kashmir Police told us that there is a syndicate active in West Bengal that facilitates their migration to Jammu, telling the Rohingya that the only Muslim-majority state in India is their natural home.
Similarly, many Rohingyas in Mewat, admitted on record that they were told to shift to Mewat as it is a "Muslim area". Mohammad says that when locals in Delhi began objecting to their settlement in the city, a maulana in a mosque in Jafrabad area told him to "go to Mewat as it is good for Muslims, especially for us."