Monday, June 30, 2014

Persecuted and Unwanted: Plight of Rohingya Refugees in India

-Kriti Chopra


The Rohingyas have been described as the ‘World’s least wanted’ and the ‘World’s most persecuted minorities’. Victims of ethnic cleansing and ongoing violence in their homeland Myanmar, they have been facing persecution since the 1960s. In 1982, the government deprived them of their Burmese citizenship unless they proved that their ancestors lived in Burma since 1832.

Since the 1980s, curfew-like conditions in their homeland has forced close to a million Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring countries especially Bangladesh. The current wave of persecution and ethnic cleansing spearheaded by Buddhist monks can be traced back to February 2013 when thousands of minority community were expelled and their houses and community facilities were destroyed with reportedly in connivance of the Burmese government. An estimated 1,50,000 Rohingyas have since fled their country taking refuge in Bangladesh, India, Thailand and Malaysia. Many have died while attempting to flee in small boats.

Living Conditions

The Rohingyas have been attempting to get recognition as refugees by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), something that has finally been achieved after years of persistent effort. India neither has a special law pertaining to refugees, nor is it a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951. Officially, India from the very beginning has been accommodative of the community. However, even in India the community faces a number of problems. This minority community continues to suffer at the hands of differential treatment meted out by India to refugees of different countries, as deemed suited to its political and diplomatic interests. Thus Rohingyas continue to live in pitiful conditions in their host countries, unable to avail education facilities, jobs, and even identity documents.

During the months of April and May, 2014 I learnt more about the condition of the Rohingyas in India by interviewing one of the UNHCR officials. She stated, in India they have inserted themselves into the interstices of Delhi, in areas like Nizamuddin and VasantVihar, and others have proceeded further to U.P, Haryana, Jammu, etc. Some have settled in camps on the relatively invisible and porous border between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, at KalindiKunj. There is no provision for potable drinking water, no sanitation facilities either, which is particularly grievous for the womenfolk. The camp area is a low-lying piece of land that turns into a snake infested swamp during rains, which claimed the lives of three children this year. In bitter cold winter, the people burn tyres and junk to find some warmth.The location of the camp land on the Delhi-Noida border areas ensures that the faintest shadow of development work approaching the settlement stays mired in bureaucratic apathy. Further, the threat of additional displacement is ever-present, as attempts by various quarters to evict them periodically start gaining momentum.

To demonstrate their disastrous condition on May 7, 2014 the Rohingya community in New Delhi staged a protest rally to highlight their sufferings and deplorable living conditions. They demonstrated to urge the international community to look into their plight. They also brought attention to the violence in Myanmar, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are suffering from a severe shortage of food and drinking water. Humanitarian aid deliveries have slowed down in Rakhine state as a result of an escalation in sectarian violence. Due to lack of empathy on the side of the Myanmar’s Government hundreds of people mostly belonging to the Rohingya community have been killed in Myanmar since the outbreak of the sectarian violence back in 2012.

Health Issues

The greatest issue faced by the Rohingyas, both in their homeland and host countries, today is their healthcare. Many of those displaced by recent violence live on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. There are reports almost daily about deaths; many of them are pregnant women experiencing complications that could have been prevented, according to aid workersin the camps.

Those who have fled to India are not able to survive on the limited access to food and shelter and on the other hand they are scared to return to Myanmar as they fear that they will be killed. It is believed that the recent attacks on the Rohingyas in Myanmar have been more severe than the 2012 violence. However, the roots of all issues and atrocities faced by the community today lies in the 2012 violence. The fear that has grown over two years in which ethnic violence in Rakhine, mostly by Buddhist mobs against the community, has left up to 280 people dead and forced another 1,40,000 from their homes. They worry Buddhist doctors and nurses will hurt or even kill them, though aid workers, now just beginning to return to Rakhine, say there is nothing to suggest that these rumours are true. Even in India they suffer due to the absence of adequate medical facilities that they can access.

Political Apathy

The current government of President TheinSein, which has been lauded for implementing political and economic reforms over the last year, has also come under criticism for continuing the junta's discriminatory policies towards the Rohingya. They were given voting rights in Myanmar’s landmark 2010 elections, with the promise of citizenship if they voted for the military regime’s representatives. Citizenship, however, has still not been granted. The plight of the Rohingya has yet to be made an integral part of any reconciliation program involving ethnic groups, which is a dismaying warning sign.

Human rights activist, head of opposition and NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has also been criticised for failing to speak out. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a neutral stance, despite earlier pleas from the European Union to take a stand on the issue. The parliament’s Rule of Law Committee - chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi - and ethnic leaders to discuss steps to prevent new clashes between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines requested the government to clearly define its citizenship policies, maintain transparency in its efforts to secure the region, and to act in accordance with Myanmarese law, thus washing its own hands off the citizenship issue. Interesting to note here is, that although the Committee spoke about bringing the violence to an end, it made no specific mention of the Rohingya themselves. Rather, it seemed to pass the onus to do so largely on the government.

The Road Ahead

The Rohingya problem has now a raging persistent international human rights issue. Myanmar has been criticised by various international organisation especially the EU for not dealing with the issue with utmost sincerity. Myanmar is in a stage of transition and introducing economic and political reforms. Political and economic reforms alone do not measure the success of a nation, the humanitarian and social issues need to be dealt with giving them the importance they deserve. Myanmar cannot possibly be called a country on the path of transformation if it fails to accommodate the ethnic minorities – the Rohingyas. There is an urgent need for the international and regional communities to continue exerting pressure on the government of Myanmar to meet its obligations.

Myanmar can resolve this longstanding crisis by either amending or repealing the 1982 Citizenship Law to recognise Rohingyas as an ethnic group of Myanmar. A recentreport by Fortify Rights states that the policies of the Myanmarese government restrict the Rohingyas movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship. Such discriminatory laws should be immediately withdrawn to stop the further persecution of this minority. Meanwhile those Rohingyas living on Indian soil are continuing their struggle for a life of dignity on alien territory.


•“Burma: Rights group insists Rohingya in more danger than ever”, Asian Correspondent, Asia, June 2, 2014 (online:Web), Accessed on June 3, 2014
•“Burma census bans people registering as Rohingyas”, News Asia, Asia, March 30 2014 (online: Web), Accessed on May 2, 2014
•“Myanmar’s Buddhist Rohingya demand”, Aljazeera, February 4, 2014 (online: Web), Accessed on May 10, 2014
•“Myanmar Migrants fear Violence”, The Myanmar Times, Myanmar, June 28, 2013 (online: Web), Accessed on April 29, 2014
•“Rakhine Violence may be Crimes against Humanity”, The Myanmar Times, Myanmar, March 17, 2014 (online: Web), Accessed on May 17, 2014
•“Root causes of Rohingya crisis lie in Myanmar”, The Daily Star, Bangladesh, May 19, 2014 (online: Web), Accessed on May 27, 2014
•Stateless and Unwanted”. Aljazeera, America, April 8, 2014 (online:Web), Accessed on May 18, 2014
•“The Plight of Rohingyas”, Astroawani, Myanmar, June 2, 2014 (online:Web), Accessed on June 2, 2014
•“Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya: Has the lady lost her voice?”, Huffington Post, America, May 31, 2014 (online: Web), Accessed on June 1, 2014
•“UN raises alarm over Rohingya Muslim abuse”, Aljazeera, Asia, April 8, 2014 (online:Web), Accessed on May 2, 2014

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