Rohingyas: The nowhere people whom no one wants
April 5, 2017
NEW DELHI: A narrow lane in Madanpur Khadar leads to a clearing of land with a sign that says 'Darul Hijrat', the home of migrants. A huddle of about 50 families of Rohingya exiles has found refuge here. On land granted by Zakat Foundation, an Islamic charitable organization, they have set up shaky homes of cardboard, plywood and tarpaulin. The lanes are thick with flies.
The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar, face intense persecution from the Rakhine Buddhists, and a state that does not acknowledge them and restricts their rights and movement. Myanmar calls them 'Bengalis', suggesting that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are rejected and despised by Bangladesh, often their first stop as they flee from their homes. "I remember the way this hostility mounted," says 32-year-old Mohammed Salimullah, who runs a shop in the camp. "My grandfather had citizenship in Arakan state, we had normal jobs, a presence in the military and police and politics. By my father's generation, we had nominal citizenship, but fewer rights. In my life I have only seen harassment and segregation," he says.
After mass violence in 2012, about 100,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have left Myanmar. You went as far as your money took you, they explain. Those with more money went to Saudi or Australia; some went to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Some have been forced into bonded labour, or trafficked. Many are in jail for being unable to show paperwork.
Everyone has escaped their own horror. They speak of relatives killed, of land grabbed, fathers and brothers beaten and forced into captive labour. "The police would just grab any woman they wanted and rape her," says 24-year-old Shamseeda Begum. She cannot wait for her youngest sister, now 18, to join her in India. The journey is expensive and treacherous, she says. You make your way though mountains, where Buddhist gangs can attack, you cross over by boat, on foot, in desperation.
In India, Rohingya exiles have made their way to Hyderabad, Jammu, Mewat, parts of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. Those at the Madanpur Khadar camp have long-stay visas and UNHCR cards with their names and photos, which they show me. They can make a bare living as labourers or ragpickers. The police does occasionally harass them but it doesn't feel personal. "This is as much freedom as we have ever known," says Salimullah. "In India, people are only vaguely aware of Burma. They think of the song 'mere piya gaye Rangoon' and think it is or was probably part of India," says 24-year old Mohammed Shakir.
Of course, there has been trouble. When they were in Vasant Kunj near the UNHCR office, asking for refuge, some people in saffron clothes threatened them with knives and told them go to Pakistan if they were Muslim, while the police stood by. "In Jammu, they are saying we threatened the Burmese military," says Shakir incredulously. Then again, college students have rallied to their defence, offered support.
In the camp, life has acquired some shape in the past five years. Many of the Rohingyas have picked up enough Hindi to get by. The 50-odd children here go to the nearby Gyandeep Vidya Mandir School and health check-ups are done by the non-profit Bosco, arranged for by UNHCR. The Zakat Foundation also chips in with aid.
This sense of peace is precarious. They are guarded in their reaction to news that the government plans to deport Rohingya refugees from Jammu.
"We will see," they say. They know they are seen as a security threat — when Aung San Suu Kyi met Modi and was asked about her stand on the Rohingyas, she said she was not on the side of terrorists and did not want their support, they claim. "All we want to do is make enough to eat and live," says Shakir. If the claims of humanity and national interest collide, what value should win, asks Syed Zafar Mahmood, president of Zakat Foundation.
In the camp, the Rohingya women and children still smear their faces with sandalwood paste, like they used to in Burma. "I miss Rangoon," says Shakir. "But they don't see us as human, they don't see our pain or our sorrow."
In 2014, he got caught by the police at the Bangladesh border, when he had gone to visit someone. His father had to borrow and cobble together 60,000 to get a lawyer to bring him back. Shakir once used to gather support for others through social media - now he's wary of drawing any attention to himself. "When they caught Somali refugees on a terror charge, we felt terrified. We might be accused of something next," he says.