Stateless, Voiceless, Unprotected.
Rohingya are Risking Ethnic Cleansing, Again
Maria Tavernini 16 March 2021

Rohingya, the Bangladeshi-speaking Muslim minority stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar, widely considered amongst the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world, are not to find peace. On March 6th, authorities in the Northern Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir – where some families belonging to the Muslim minority have settled following the atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state – have arrested some 170 Rohingya refugees, threatening to repatriate them. Dozens of Rohingya are now jailed in a makeshift “holding center” at Jammu’s Hira Nagar prison, where authorities have taken biometric tests to verify their identities. On March 11th, 88 Rohingya refugees have been detained while they were camping outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the Indian capital, New Delhi: they had come all the way from Jammu to get their refugee cards renewed and seek help from UNHCR. The Hindu nationalist government labels the Muslim Rohingya as “illegal migrants” and a security threat, and has hence ordered their repatriation, but the current crackdown is set to further victimize the stateless ethnic group fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

India is home to some 40,000 Rohingya – 16,500 of which hold UNHCR refugee ID cards – that over the years fled outbreaks of violence, yet the largest concentration is in Bangladesh, where at least 700,000 people in 2017 alone have fled the ethnic cleansing. Most Rohingya in neighboring Bangladesh are crammed inside make-shift refugee camps in Cox Bazar, the world’s largest refugees’ settlement, where around 1 million refugees live in subhuman conditions. Dhaka is planning to relocate thousands of them to the remote Bhasan Char Island in the Bay of Bengal. The refugees arrested in India asserted that it “has rekindled the beleaguered refugee community’s memories of the persecution in Myanmar”. In the past – especially since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is in power – Rohingya have been attacked or targeted by hate-campaigns by Hindu extremist groups in India, claiming that they are terrorists. “The drive is part of an exercise to trace foreigners living in Jammu without valid documents”, claimed one of the officials involved in the arrest while speaking to the media.  “We have started the process of deportation of these refugees”.

Rohingya fear deportation, even more now as Myanmar’s political condition is deteriorating, halting the 10-years long democratization process. The UN says that sending refugees back to a place where they face danger violates the international legal principle of non-refoulement. “Delhi should halt any plans to deport ethnic Rohingya and others to Myanmar, where they would be at risk from its oppressive military junta”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement. Since February 1st, the country has been in turmoil after the junta, known as the Tatmadaw, has seized power, conducting raids throughout the country and arresting State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Ever since, civilians have opposed the military coup by invading the country’s streets banging cans and pots: the army responded with a brutal repression. Dozens of people have been killed and more than thousand arrested, while Amnesty International has accused the military of adopting “battle tactics” against demonstrators. Despite advocating for a safe return of refugees, the Tatmadaw’s actions led to the exodus from the coastal Rakhine state, where Rohingya used to reside. Approximately 600,000 Rohingya are still in Rakhine, living under military control. The mass displacement of the Rohingya in summer 2017 brought international attention to their crisis and the International Court of Justice to formulate allegations of genocide.

“Any plan to forcibly return Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW. “Myanmar’s long-abusive military is even more lawless now that it is back in power, and the Indian government should uphold its international law obligations and protect those in need of refuge within its borders.” When she was in power, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi turned a blind eye when army-backed extremist Buddhist monks and local nationalists led a pogrom against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, forcing many to flee. Her silence over the matter eroded her international reputation and support. The United Nations independent human rights expert on Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, has called on the Security Council for “decisive and unified action” against the military junta. His report demonstrates that throughout 2020, the military violated the International Court of Justice’s order to protect the Rohingya from further violence. The report shows that despite the order, Myanmar security forces “continued to murder, torture, and fire indiscriminately on Rohingya civilians, while continuing to deny them equal access to citizenship rights”.

“The issue is very simple: Rohingya are refugees – everybody knows they’ve come to India escaping genocide and violence in Myanmar. Under various conventions ratified by India and under the Right to Life – Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – India is bound to protect them and not to send them back, repatriate them or detain them: they are allowed to live here as refugees, and therefore detaining them is unconstitutional and sending them back is inhuman” explained to ResetDOC Prashant Bhushan, a human rights activist and among the lawyers who filed a petition to the Supreme Court against their detention and repatriation. “They are clearly refugees under international law and therefore they have the right to be here and be protected by the Indian government. The government is not recognizing their refugee status despite the fact that many of them have refugee cards. The government says India has not ratified the refugees’ convention; nevertheless, it has ratified many other conventions (against torture, for child rights, etc.) all of which prevent the government from detaining or sending these people back where to they are likely to face violence and persecution”. The pogrom against them has been recognized as ethnic cleansing and Bhushan warns that the situation might be even harder now, after the junta’s military coup.

“Until there was a state government there [in Jammu & Kashmir] they were protected, but now the state has come under central rule and things have worsened. The BJP has always called Rohingya terrorists because they are Muslims, as the ruling party likens all Muslims to terrorists, even though there is no evidence whatsoever to show that Rohingya are involved in any illegal or violent activity”. According to the lawyer, the crackdown has also to do with the recent amendment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the anti-Muslim sentiment prevailing in the country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The treatment of Rohingya refugees by this government, read along with the notifications amending the Passport Rules and Foreigners Order of 2015-2016, and the CAA, all display a discriminatory and hostile attitude towards Muslims. With the Supreme Court nearly abdicating its responsibility in protecting persecuted ethnic minorities fleeing genocide by allowing for their refoulement in October 2018, the consequences on the Rohingya population in India could be serious”, Bhushan wrote in an article days before a boat crammed with Rohingya refugees adrift in the Andaman Sea for 10 days, was rescued by the Indian Coast Guard at the end of February.


Cover Photo: Rohingya refugees look out from a bus headed to a Bangladeshi navy ship in Chittagong on January 30, 2021, that will take them to be relocated to Bhashan Char island in the Bay of Bengal (Munir Uz Zaman / AFP).

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