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3 generations of Rohingya living in India trapped in a stateless cycle

The congested Rohingya settlement in New Delhi (left), where 16-year-old Ashokur Rahman lives. Photo: Bibek Bhandari

By Bibek Bhandari
May 5, 2014

Persecuted in their home country Myanmar, refugees taken in by India live in squalid conditions with little hope of ever returning from exile

Most teenagers have books in their backpacks, but Ashokur Rahman's bag has his most-prized possessions: a refugee card from the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, and a single-entry visa from the Indian government that expires in 2015.

Rahman is one of the 6,000 Rohingya Muslims registered with UNHCR in India out of which approximately 4,500 have received refugee cards. However, he represents a small fraction of the population that has fled Myanmar fearing persecution, either into Bangladesh, or by boat to Malaysia.

Thousands of stateless Rohingya are estimated to be living across India, including in the capital, New Delhi.

A dusty road opposite an under-construction metro station in Kalindi Kunj in south New Delhi is Rahman's temporary address. It's a cluster of 50 houses sharing the same plot of land provided by the Zakat Foundation of India, a non-government organisation. More than 200 people live in an area roughly the size of three tennis courts.

Ashokur Rahman. Photo: Bibek Bhandari

The houses in this settlement known as Darul Hijrat - "Migrants' house" in Arabic - are makeshift shacks made of tarpaulin sheets and bamboo stilts. At 38-degrees Celsius, with no proper ventilation, the houses heat like an oven. During winter, residents say the houses are frigid, and they leak during monsoon season.

"But at least we don't have to pay rent," Rahman said. His family paid 500 rupees (HK$65) a month to live in a similar settlement in Jammu before coming to New Delhi.

Rahman, 16, has been on the move as long as he can remember. His father first came to India and then paid a "middleman" to help the rest of the family cross the border. He started working as a child, collecting metals. In New Delhi, when lucky, he works menial jobs that pay about 250 rupees a day.

"Maybe if I were literate, it might have been different," he said. "But if I go to school, who will earn for my family? My mother has to look after my siblings and my father is too old to work."

While young men spend their days looking for work or just hanging around, women often stay indoors as half-naked children run around the neighbourhood. Ageing residents lay in bed helpless, struggling with health problems. But resident Mohammad Haroon said that with summer approaching, the entire community could be vulnerable to various health risks.

Haroon is concerned about hygiene and sanitation, especially the lack of clean drinking water and no proper sewage system.

"These challenges will always remain," Haroon said. "But at least we have a place to stay."

For people like Sekowara, the settlements are a reminder of the country she escaped from. The 25-year-old said she left Myanmar with her father as a child after her mother was killed. Her congested room is now home to three generations. "Our parents lived as refugees, we are living as refugees, and our children might also live as refugees," said the mother of three.

"I'm concerned about my children's future. I would return [to Myanmar, if the situation improved]."

But when they hear about the atrocities there, even the few hopeful Rohingya turn negative.

Abdullah, who fled to India in 2012, is among the casualties of the "ethnic cleansing" in Myanmar's Arakan state. But many more like Abdullah's siblings have no choice.

"I call them almost every day," said the 22-year-old, who is still waiting for a refugee card. "I worry about them because there's never good news from Burma."

Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR Chief of Mission in India, said there is, however, still hope for the Rohingya.

"Myanmar is embarking towards greater democratisation and will have to address some of the underlying ethnic issues and agree how to live harmoniously," he said. " In the years to come, we will hopefully see some progress on that count."

But for Rahman, whose memory of his home country is punctured with a hostile past, the future is uncertain. Without a country and a permanent address, he said he will always be in exile and his identity limited to the number on his refugee card.

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