India warned plan to deport Rohingya refugees will only inflame persecution

Move to expel illegal immigrants will exacerbate religious tensions and prove ‘legally, procedurally and practically impossible’ to enforce, claim activists

A plan by the Indian government to deport tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees will increase harassment of the persecuted Muslim minority while proving impossible to implement, activists have warned.

Earlier this month, India’s ministry of home affairs sent a letter to each of the country’s state governments asking them to identify and deport all illegal immigrants, including Rohingya refugees.

The letter said the refugees were a potential security threat and a burden on resources, calling on law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take “prompt steps in identifying the illegal migrants and initiate the deportation processes expeditiously”.

But Madhurima Dhanuka, coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s prison reforms programme, said deporting the Rohingyas to Myanmar was “legally, procedurally and practically impossible”.

“Rohingyas are not merely economic illegal immigrants, but people who have been forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution,” she said. “This distinguishes them from other illegal immigrants who the government has the authority to deport or prosecute.”

Although India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention, it is “bound by its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and customary international law to not extradite, deport, expel or otherwise remove a person from its territory where there are substantial grounds for believing that there is real risk of irreparable harm”, Dhanuka added.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled ethnic violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, with thousands crossing through Bangladesh into India since the 1980s. About 40,000 have settled there, more than 16,000 of whom are registered with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

But anti-Rohingya sentiment has been growing in India, which is predominantly Hindu. Earlier this year, in the northern city of Jammu, home to about 5,500 refugees, leaders of several Hindu groups launched a campaign to expel Rohingya from the region.

In February, one group put up posters calling on Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave. In April, a statement from a local body of traders and industrialists said the Rohingya were “criminals and drug traffickers disowned by their own country”. They threatened a campaign to “identify and kill” Rohingya if the government did not deport them.

Local leaders of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party have increased tensions by suggesting that Rohingya refugees could be used by Pakistani intelligence or Islamic State for espionage and terrorism.

The letter from the home ministry said: “Illegal migrants are more vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organisations.

“Infiltration from [Myanmar’s] Rakhine state … into Indian territory, especially in the recent years, besides being [a] burden on the limited resources of the country, also aggravates the security challenges posed.”

The UNHCR in Delhi said in a statement that the principle of non-refoulement – not expelling those who have the right to be recognised as refugees – is part of customary international law, and binding on countries regardless of whether they are signatories to the convention.

“Asylum seekers and/or refugees, wherever they are and wherever they may be from, should not be returned against their will to their country of origin,” said the statement.

A spokesman for the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said: “Refugees must not be sent back to places where they fear persecution.” Demonisation of the Rohingyas was irresponsible, said rights campaigners. Sahana Basavapatna, a refugee rights activist, said: “If a person is found to have been involved in any offence, the justice system in India is functional enough to ensure that trials are conducted and the guilt or otherwise of the individual ascertained.

“This applies equally to Rohingyas who are accused of ‘terrorism’. The entire Rohingya community cannot be said to be involved in terrorism even [if] some are accused of related offences.”

The government announcement has spread fear across the Rohingya community.

“Rohingyas in Burma continue to be victims of murder, rape, arson and other violence. Innocent Rohingya men are also being arrested and jailed,” said Dil Mohammad, who fled Myanmar in 2007, and lives in Jammu with his wife and four children.

“Rohingyas are still being targeted in violence and fleeing Burma. It is extremely unsafe for us to return,” said Syed Hussain, who also lives in Jammu.

“We fled to India to save our lives. Indian authorities should be kind to us and not send us back to Burma where our lives will be at risk.”

Zafarul-Islam Khan, a Delhi-based Muslim community leader and human rights campaigner, said the deportation of the Muslim Rohingyas amounted to a “betrayal of the liberal and secular values of free India”.

“Hindu and Buddhist refugees from neighbouring countries are welcome in India. India has even allowed the Burmese Buddhist refugee political activities,” said Khan.

“To deport the Rohingyas, who took refuge in India only to secure their lives and somehow survive, is thoughtless and cruel.”


Shaikh Azizur Rahman in New Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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