Reliving Rakhine?

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As the situation in Myanmar goes from bad to worse, some of the Rohingya Muslim refugees are facing a new crisis in Jammu. It is being officially stated that the verification is in anticipation of their repatriation, reports Tahir Bhat

A Rohingya basti in Jammu. Image: Pallavi Sareen

At a time, when the Myanmar army has finally overthrown the condemned Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, and is battling the street protesters seeking restoration of democracy, the tiny country is in news beyond its borders as well. Hundreds of thousands of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims, living as refugees in neighbouring countries continue making disturbing news.

In January, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, regretted Delhi’s decision to repatriate a group of Rohingya to Myanmar, the second such return in three months. These UNHRC registered asylum seekers, detained in Assam since 2013, were sent back to Myanmar on January 3.

On March 6, the Jammu and Kashmir government started verification and biometric profiling of Rohingyas living in Jammu. Termed to be part of an exercise to trace foreigners living in the temple city without valid documents, as many as 168 “illegal” immigrants were driven in buses to the Hiranagar jail. The verification was carried out at the MAM Stadium.

A Holding Centre

The jail was converted into “holding centres” under Section 3(2)e of the Foreigners Act. It can hold up to 250 inmates. It was opened for “illegal” foreigners a week after the prisoners were shifted to other jails.

“These immigrants were not holding valid travel documents required in terms of Section (3) of the Passports Act,” Jammu Police Chief, Mukesh told reporters. “After sending them to the holding centre, their nationality verification will be done as per the prescribed norms. Following that, the process to deport these illegal immigrants will be initiated.”

Ravinder Raina, the BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir chief told The Indian Express that the police action was taken following a request from Myanmar’s External Affairs Ministry to deport the Rohingya back for resettlement. “Anyone who has to leave his native land will certainly be happy to return home,” Raina told the newspaper.

Apparently, the drive was a follow-up to the longstanding demand of the rightwing groups seeking the Rohingya repatriation owing to apprehensions that their continued presence was a “threat to peace” and they could “alter the demography of Jammu”.

Tens of thousands of Rohingyas’ from the Rakhine belt of Myanmar were driven out in a joint operation by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is called, and Buddhist monks for most of 2017. Myanmar does not see the Rohingyas’s as their citizens and dubs them to be illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Around 1.1 million are living in Bangladesh alone. Though the genocide has been upheld by most of the world bodies, the Tatmadaw took over the country and deposed the democratically elected government thus preventing any intervention.

Though an estimated 40,000 of them have taken refuge in India, officials said not more than 15,000 carrying UNHCR cards. More than 6000 are believed to be in Jammu and Kashmir including 39 camps in Jammu.

Dividing Families

The verification process has separated the wives from their husbands and children from their parents.

Tension dominated the Rohingya temporary settlements after the transfer of some of them to the holding centres. Pic Pallavi Sareen

Khatija said her son has not returned from the camp even his wife gave birth the same day. At Kiryani Talab in Narwal, where a major Rohingya ramshackle slump existed, The Indian Express traced four siblings of a family not having any information about their parents, who had attended the camp. Their phone was switched off.  In another home, it said Haseena Begum and her seven minor grand-children endlessly waited for her son Ibrahim and his wife Sajida Bibi.

It even found, a young wife, Sara waiting for her labourer husband Abdullah, with a month-old infant in her arms.

Mohammad Rizwan, who lived in a camp near Panama Chowk said his wife, sister, and children were taken away. I am ready to go anywhere as long as my family is with me,” he said.

The refugee elders who have not been picked up said they do not know how to manage these “divided” families whose parents are in jail and the dependents free in the cam. They peacefully protested on Sunday.

Abdul Qarim, a Rohingya Muslim carrying his mother all the way from Burma to Bangladesh.

“I thank India for the hospitality and giving us the opportunity to earn our livelihood,” Salamtullah, a refuge told The Hindu. “But the kids who are left behind after the latest drive are crying inconsolably. They should be allowed to meet their families.” He told The Outlook he left Myanmar as his child and others were killed there. “And here, my uncle, grandfather and others have been taken into detention. We don’t know what our fate is.”

Hate Campaign

Ali Johar, the Delhi based co-director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative told The Outlook that the operation is the outcome of the campaign launched by some groups and the local media. Asserting that more than 6,000 refugees living in Jammu and Kashmir have UNHCR cards but some of those cards might have expired. A protracted internet clampdown and the raging pandemic could be the reason.

“So if they cannot visit respective offices to renew their cards, how can the authorities expect renewed cards from them? The UNHCR operates remotely and the cards are renewed online only,” Johar was quoted saying. “Besides, the community is very poor with no IT knowledge, how could they have renewed their cards? There might be some holding expired cards. But that doesn’t mean these people are not refugees. They are already recognized as refugees with valid refugee cards.”

Court Cases

The operation came within a month after a division bench of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir directed the government to file a response within a month about the measures it is taking or proposes to take “proper action” with regard to illegal immigrants. The direction came in response to the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that advocate Hunar Gupta, in-charge BJP’s law and legal affairs department, filed before the court seeking directions to shift all the illegal migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh from Jammu and Kashmir and withdraw all the benefits extended to them.

In Delhi, however, human rights defender, Ravi Nair has moved the Supreme Court against the deportation of Rohingyas’. “I need affidavits from them (in Jammu) so that we will move the Supreme Court to stop the detention and to free all those already in prison,” Nair told al-Jazeera. “They are not illegal migrants. They are refugees with valid UNHCR cards and, according to the memorandum of understanding between India and the UN refugee body, all urban refugees can be recognised as legal and these are urban refugees in Jammu.”

Host Reactions

The crisis has led the local political class to react. “We know about Burma and the situation there. We all know what their army is doing there,” Dr Abdullah, who is in Jammu said. “There is a UN refugee charter to which India is also a signatory. We should accept it and work on it and behave humanely on the issue”.

“In Jammu, there are 7,690 Tibetans & 5,743 Rohingya refugees. But 155 Rohingyas sent to holding centres. Why verification for Rohingyas only just because they are Muslim? This exposes BJP Govt’s Islamophobic & inhumane nature!,” young Congressman, Salman Nizami tweeted. “BJP govt is creating panic among refugees in J&K. Refugee is a refugee no matter their faith. Verification as per law is fine, but BJP’s disastrous policies hve communal undertones. Sending Rohingyas to jail is against UN guidelines. PM Modi must stop making a mockery of India!”

Unwilling To Return

The refugees have told reporters that they are not unwilling to return home but the situation in Burma is bad. After the army coup, the junta is embattled in battles with pro-democracy protesters as a result of which nearly 70 people have been killed so far.

Rohingyas receiving support from NGO’s at Narwal, Jammu camp.

“We will go back when peace returns to our country,” Sufeera, 28, whose uncle and brother have landed in Hiranagar jail, was quoted saying. The young lady and her minor children are in a camp.

“It’s better to shoot us all dead here than send us to Burma (Myanmar) where we will be rained with bullets anyway,” a Rohingya, who gave his name as Rafique, was quoted by AFP saying phone. “We haven’t slept since police started rounding us up and separating our children from their families.”

In a Fix

The situation, however, continues to remain unchanged. Given the situation in Myanmar, there are instances of more refugees getting into India, even by accident. Early March, 89 refugees managed to leave Bangladesh on February 11, in a bid to reach Malaysia using a fishing boat. Its engine stopped working and it drifted into the Andaman Sea where the Indian authorities provided them food, medical and technical aid but did not permit them to enter Indian waters. Eight of them have already died of dehydration. Of those still alive, 47 were carrying valid UNHCR cards.

Post coup by the Tatmadaw, ethnic Chins from Myanmar has started getting into Mizoram. Already 50 to 100 have got in with local support forcing the Assam Rifles to close the border and trade routes. Now, the Myanmar junta is seeking the deportation of “eight police deserters” to keep good bilateral relations. No decision is around in sight.

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