By Aabid Mushtaq and Tajamul Islam
The issue of forced exodus of the Rohingya is an immense challenge to countries that endorse and purport the humanitarian laws. From Myanmar to the borders of different countries, the ill-treatment these people receive goes against the principles and guidelines of the different conventions regarding the refugees. Their basic rights must be protected by the states where they have taken shelter. The recent lockdown imposed on the Rohingya in Bathindi, Jammu is both illegal and a violation of international conventions on refugees.
Mohammed Haneef is one of the Rohingya refugees who asked us to be patient while listening to him because nobody ever had time to listen to their miseries. His father was burnt alive by the Myanmar’s authorities while escaping from Myanmar. When we enquired further, his eyes welled up and he said, “We want nothing but to be treated to be like a human. We have families and we too have our own land. They [ambassadors of human rights] could not save our land and we left everything behind. If this isn’t a humanitarian issue, then noting is. The UN must be dissolved because it doesn’t serve its objectives and promises anymore.” In Myanmar, he could not even get land to perform the last rites. Since he left Myanmar, Haneef has never lived a single day without fear.
Sanaullah, 40, spoke of his struggle and hardship as a refugee. “Fear has always been our companion and we don’t fear anymore because we have seen kinder beasts than humans. We have been living in Jammu since 2013. We work hard, you touch my hands, these are as hard as iron. I won’t feel any pain even if my hands get crushed. We work as blacksmith, carpenter, and daily wagers. Even our women work as house cleaners in some Jammu residential areas. It is unfortunate that some local media channels have labeled us as thieves and reported that the police have lodged us in the detention centers because the locals have filed complaints about our behavior. This is an absolutely lie. Anyone can talk to the people around us and find out the truth. They love us and they know we are honest people.”
Fear has grown among the Rohingya as the police have arrested more than 170 of them. These arbitrary arrests have silenced and terrorized them. They were told that they were being taken to hospitals for COVID-19 tests but were lodged in the Hiranagar jail in Jammu. The Hiranagar jail has a capacity for 234 people but more than 228 prisoners were already in the jail. More than 170 Rohingyas have been lodged in it now. This exceeds the normal capacity of the jail. The overcrowding of the jail in the times of the pandemic may turn fatal. Their incarceration goes against the principles of right to life and personal liberty conferred under different international conventions.
Mariam, 33, said, “In 2020 when the whole world was battling this deadly virus, we didn’t see a single case among our people here. We take enough precaution and maintain hygiene. Now the authorities are harassing us in the name of these tests. We have been seeing such harassment since our childhood and we feel broken now. We love our land, and we want to return. But this can happen only when the situation becomes normal.”
Abdul Karim, a 21-year-old man, was in deep despair because he had not seen his 11-year-old sister and 70-year-old grandmother for last three days, as they have been picked up by the police. He even went to the local police station and Hiranagar jail, but the police refused to provide any information about their whereabouts. He said, “In Myanmar, we escaped unhurt but in Jammu, it feels as if we are being killed slowly. We are not animals; even animals get better treatment than we do.”
Refugees in Bhatindi told us that the police personnel had approached them last Saturday with a list of names. They were told to renew their documents. Some of them agreed to go with the police because they were given to believe that they had to undergo COVID-19 tests.
Muhammad Faisal, one of Karim’s neighbours, said, “Some left with the police and others were about to leave when we heard that the police have detained our people, including Inayat’s mother and sister. We were afraid and decided to stay put.”
Asma, a 7-year-old girl, studies in one of the English medium schools in Bathindi, Jammu and speaks fluent English. She was born in Jammu. When we asked her what she wants to do in life, she said, “Even if I lose everything, I can draw on my education. I want to write the stories of my people and their melancholy.” She stands among the top 10 bright students at the school in every examination.
However, the schools do not recognize these children and do not allow them admission for higher studies. “The reason for getting education is to have citizenship. But education is not free and universal,” said Asma’s mother.
The mass raid on these families and their detention are part of a wider pan-India crackdown on the Rohingya refugees by the central government, led by Narendra Modi. Long rattled by frequent displacements, countless Rohingyas now face deportation to Myanmar, which is currently simmering under a military coup.
The military junta in Myanmar has seized unprecedented control since it carried out the coup on February 1, taking over hospitals and communications. More than 50 civilians have been killed as protests for the return of democracy continue. Rohingya refugees who return to the country face even greater danger than others do. The same military junta responsible for burning down their villages, murdering thousands of their people, and raping scores of women and girls is now in charge of the country.
“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 one of the refugees in Jammu. He further added, “We don’t want to be a burden to any nation. We have home in Myanmar, and we belong to that country. We are appealing for help on humanitarian basis. We want some place to live until the situation becomes peaceful in Myanmar.”
The United Nations has maintained its position that deporting the Rohingya violates the international legal principle of refoulement – sending refugees back to a place where they face danger. However, the Modi government has rejected that position, arguing that it is not signatory to the specific U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has affirmed the statement in this regard, “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.”
Myanmar does not recognize roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya, one of the largest ethnic minority populations in the country, as citizens. The stateless people have fled in droves, escaping repeated crackdowns by the junta in the last decade. Since 2016, more than 6,500 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of 5, have been killed by the military, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
India, where about 40,000 refugees reside, has been one of the primary destinations for the Rohingya. But recent mass detentions have signaled that the country has become an increasingly unsafe place for Muslims under the leadership of Hindutva nationalist Modi.
When the darkness descends, Abdul Kaarim gets scared. “Since that day, I’m afraid to sleep because my grandmother and sister are not at home,” he said. Sitting at the crossroad outside the concentration area, he awaits the return of his grandmother and sister as thousands of other Rohingyas stare at an uncertain future, with their lives upended yet again.
The recent detention of these people in Jammu is subject to court challenge, as they are legal migrants under universal declaration on human rights 1948, 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, 1967 optional protocol relating to the status of refugees, American Declaration on the Rights and duties of man, Arab charter on Human Rights, Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, European Convention on Human Rights and many more. The same detentions are being challenged in the supreme Court of India. Hence, are sub-judice. Any further detentions are arbitrary, unreasonable and a grave violation of these international conventions and the domestic laws of the land.
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