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Myanmar's Rohingya stuck in refugee limbo in India

A woman, who says she belongs to the Rohingya community from Myanmar, washes clothes as children play in a camp in New Delhi September 13, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)

By Nita Bhalla
September 15, 2014

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Kohinoor, a stateless Rohingya Muslim, fled her home in Myanmar after a wave of attacks by majority Buddhists, she hoped for a chance to rebuild her life in a new country.

She knew she would have to trek for days with little food and water and risk her life being smuggled across borders by traffickers. But she and her family did not imagine their present life of destitution and discrimination in India, the country they had chosen as their refuge.

"We were chased out of Burma (Myanmar). We were chased out of Bangladesh. Now we are in India, the people here tell us that India is not our country. So where will we go?" asked Kohinoor, 20, sitting in a makeshift tent on a patch of wasteland in southern Delhi.

"We don’t have any land of our own. Our children don’t go to the government schools as they refuse us admission. When we go to the hospital, they don't admit people from our community," said Kohinoor, who fled Myanmar two years ago with her 2-year-old daughter and her sister’s family.

Though the Rohingya minority have lived for generations in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, the largely Buddhist government passed a citizenship law in 1982 which excluded them, denying them the identity cards required for everything from schooling and marriage to finding a job and getting a birth or death certificate. They became stateless.

Hundreds died in communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012, worsening their plight, and in the last two years more than 86,000 Rohingya have left, fleeing to countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are among an estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide. Their plight will be discussed during the first global forum on statelessness opening in The Hague on Monday, ahead of an ambitious U.N. campaign starting in November to eradicate statelessness worldwide within a decade.

India, despite hosting some 30,000 registered refugees, has no legal recognition of asylum seekers, making it difficult for them to use essential services like schools and hospitals, human rights groups say – and the Rohingya community is among the most vulnerable.


According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), there are around 9,000 Rohingya registered in Delhi. Thousands more, unregistered, are living in other parts of the country such as Jammu and Hyderabad.

In Delhi, most of them lead impoverished lives in tented settlements dotted around the city, eking out a meagre existence collecting and selling garbage or doing manual work for Indians, often underpaid and exploited.

Because they have no identity documents, they cannot send their children to school or use health services at government hospitals. They cannot rent accommodation and face problems getting work.

Many say they have been forced to sleep under plastic sheets on roadsides or patches of wasteland for weeks or months, before local residents or authorities move them on.

"Our home is Myanmar but they chased us out," said 21-year-old Abdul Sukur at a camp housing some 60 families in Delhi's Okhla district.

"Here also we don't belong. People abuse us for living on the streets and say we are making the place dirty. We have to shift constantly. We need permanent land in India where we can settle and have proper identity documents which we can show," he said.


Considered a haven in a volatile region, India has for decades hosted refugees fleeing conflict or persecution in countries like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, China and Myanmar.

But its refugees have no legal status. Decisions about refugees are taken on an ad hoc basis and some groups, such as Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans, have been given certain rights and support.

Others, such as the Rohingya, have been less fortunate.

Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR India's chief of mission, said the UNHCR identity cards given to registered refugees are often not recognised as they are not issued by the government. The agency is partnering with non-governmental organisations which are going into refugee communities to help them negotiate access to basic services, he added.

"Overall if you look at how India looks after refugees, it is a functioning protection regime. There are no big violations of refugee rights, although there are lots of things that could improve," Bartsch said.

"There is differential treatment of refugees. You have to analyse the period when they arrived and also look at the bilateral relationship with the country of origin. These are the two factors that shape how India has treated refugees over time."

New Delhi has twice blocked draft laws on refugee recognition. Because of its porous borders, often hostile neighbours and external militancy, it wants a free hand to regulate the entry of foreigners without being tied down by any legal obligation, analysts said.

UNHCR's Bartsch said the inability of refugees to state their claim to asylum was actually driving them underground, making them more exposed to militancy.

"Currently, there is no channel available to present a case to the government," he said. "Anyone who runs away from their country is forced to go underground and that results in people being off the grid, bereft of any support and subject to criminal activity and, worst case, even fundamentalism."

For Kohinoor, little of this makes sense.

"I don't know about laws," she said. "Every country is kicking us around like a football. From one country to another, people are playing with us. We want the world to make a decision about us. We want them to give us some land in any country which we can then call home."

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