India and the Rohingya Crisis (Part 1)

Written by Mazhbeen Siganporia

India has a long and positive history of opening her doors to refugees and has, in the past, granted asylum to Tibetan, Afghani, Sri Lankan, and Myanmari refugees. Generations have called her home, having thrived and integrated into Indian society. Well acquainted with refugee crises, India has never shied away from dealing with them.  The response to the current the Rohingya crisis however, has been a cause for concern.

The Rohingya problem in Myanmar is equal parts ethnic and political. The history of the erstwhile Arakan region (now Rakhine state) is extremely complex. The region has a complicated past with what is now Bangladesh and there have been multiple conflicts and migrations. The result is that the Rohingyas have come to be viewed as outsiders, with a difficult and sometimes violent relationship with the Myanmar government post-independence. The Myanmar authorities and public view them not as citizens, but as Bengalis and have systematically and ruthlessly disenfranchised the Rohingya community.

Over the last decade fresh waves of violence and persecution have caused hundreds of thousands to flee to the countries surrounding Myanmar. The overwhelming majority chose to escape to Bangladesh where most of them live in what is now the world’s most densely populated refugee camp in the Cox’s Bazaar district. A few thousand made their way to India, some as far back as 2009. Most arrived in West Bengal via Bangladesh, some also entered through the north eastern states which share borders with the affected region in Myanmar.

They have settled in official camps as well as unofficial settlements in the north eastern states and in six locations across the rest of the country. Around 16,500 Rohingyas are registered with the UNHCR. Estimates from government agencies put the number of Rohingyas illegally settled in India at over 40,000. This two-part essay attempts to briefly discuss the Indian government’s domestic response (in policy and action) to the Rohingya refugees within India’s borders.

Are They Illegal Immigrants or Refugees?

In a departure from convention, the Indian government has chosen to view the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants. A September 2017 advisory from the Home Ministry directed state governments to sensitize their law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take steps to identify illegal immigrants so as to initiate the deportation process. Soon after the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, released a statement saying, “I want to tell the international organizations whether the Rohingya are registered under the United Nations Human Rights Commission or not. They are illegal immigrants in India and as per law they stand to be deported.” The minister seems unaware that the established guidelines of the ministry in which he serves, state that persons fleeing persecution will not be treated as illegal immigrants and will be granted long-term visas by India. What is even more puzzling is that preceding this statement, around 5000 long-term visas had already been granted to Rohingyas, some by the current dispensation itself.

Given that the problem of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the north eastern states has occupied headlines and been an assembly election issue, Mr Rijiju’s statement was well received. What troubles one, is that when it comes to the Rohingyas, the present Indian government appears to have suddenly developed difficulties differentiating between a refugee and an illegal immigrant. It could be argued that this stance is possibly meant to serve as a deterrent to others considering coming to India. However, one cannot help but wonder if these difficulties stem from electoral aspirations.

What About Security Risks?

Security agencies have raised the issue of possible threats from the Rohingya refugees. There have been allegations of suspected ties with Islamic militant organizations and concerns over their susceptibility to radicalization. While the security risk must not be flippantly dismissed, these allegations have not been substantiated so far. Mr. Colin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court Advocate and founder of Human Rights Law Network, represents the 7000 refugees in Jammu and Kashmir. He has stated that not a single refugee has been charged with terrorism. The Chief Minister of J&K has also stated that no signs of radicalization have been found in the Rohingya population. However, even in the absence of evidence, the central government has consistently and publicly perpetuated the narrative of a security risk to the country and acted accordingly.

The Times of India on June 4th, 2018 reported that the Ministry of Home Affairs sent the state government of J&K an advisory earlier that month. The letter directed them to confine Rohingyas to pre-determined areas, record their personal and biometric information (including their addresses in Myanmar), and not to issue them any identity documents. The correspondence highlighted the security risks posed by the community as well as some of the criminal activities in which they were engaged, adding that some were vulnerable to being radicalized. A government source is reported to have said that this information was being collected to be shared with Myanmar, possibly for repatriation. Similar advisories have been issued to other state governments as well. Spokespersons for the central government have also repeatedly gone on record to claim that the community poses a security risk.

The security risks are real, but they must be assessed on an individual basis and not be conflated with the larger, very pressing humanitarian crisis. The Indian government needs to be more responsible in its policies and attitude towards the Rohingyas and the Rohingya crisis. India must view the issue through the prism of human rights and global responsibility. It is reckless for the government to dismiss the entire community as a security risk in an attempt to absolve India of any obligations.

About the author: Mazhbeen Siganporia is an expat trailing spouse with a professional background in aviation and an educational background in Business Management.  Previous volunteering experience includes teaching in Arab communities in Northern Israel.

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