The deportation of a Rohingya woman back to Myanmar has sparked fears that India is preparing to expel many more refugees from the country.
Hasina Begum, 37, was deported from Indian-administered Kashmir two weeks ago, despite holding a UN verification of her refugee status, intended to protect holders from arbitrary detention. Begum was among 170 refugees arrested and detained in Jammu in March last year. Her husband and three children, who also have UN refugee status, remain in Kashmir.
Days after her deportation, the authorities detained another 25 Rohingya refugees. They are being held in Hiranagar jail, which police described as a “holding centre” for Rohingya “illegally living” in India.
“There are around 275 Rohingya detained in the holding centre, and documentation for deportation of all of them is complete,” said Prem Kumar Modi, the centre’s superintendent. “We are waiting for the government orders to send them back [to Myanmar].”
The authorities gave no reason why Begum was selected for deportation.
The move has heightened the insecurity of Rohingya living in India. In early 2019, hundreds left for Bangladesh, fearing detention and deportation when India began a campaign to record their biometric data.
Action against the 40,000 Muslim Rohingya people has intensified since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) came to power in 2014. BJP leaders have launched campaigns demanding the expulsion of all Rohingya.
Ali Johar, Begum’s husband, said their children, aged nine to 15, did not understand why their mother has been separated from them. “They are crying,” he said. “I don’t know what to do and who to ask for help.”
Begum was five months pregnant with her third child in 2012 when the family fled brutal violence at the hands of the Myanmar military in Sittwe. A further military crackdown in 2017 killed thousands and forced about 750,000 Rohingya into refugee camps in Bangladesh.
“We came to India hoping that the secular country will provide us shelter till there is peace in our native land,” said Johar, who had found employment and was renting a place to live with other Rohingya families.
The children saw their mother three times while she was in jail. “She would always cry, looking at us, and complain of bad living conditions in jail,” said her 15-year-old son, Hussain. “She was visibly frail and would plead with us to get her out somehow. When we would leave, she would always hit her head on the wall and cry.”
Johar said he could not afford to miss a day of work to visit his wife. His children would accompany other people who were visiting their imprisoned family members. The children last saw their mother at the start of the year, and only learned of her deportation from media reports.
Human rights groups have said Rohingya refugees are facing “life-threatening risks” in India and accused the authorities of “cruel disregard for human life and international law”.
Rohingya refugees say they are afraid to go out for work. Although some refugees are now leaving Jammu for other cities in India or for Bangladesh, many are unable to do so because their family members remain in jail.
A group of Rohingya refugees who left Jammu last week said they are waiting to cross over to Bangladesh, even though conditions for Rohingya refugees in the country is already worsening. “We do not want to be sent back to the country which has burned hundreds of us alive,” said a Rohingya refugee who wished to remain anonymous.