Monday, October 19, 2015

Rohingya Children in a Kolkata Shelter Home: A History of Discrimination and Dreams for a New Beginning

Madhura Chakraborty

Madhura Chakraborty works at Calcutta Research Group. She has been working on migrant labourers since 2011. She can be reached at

The last bout of mass scale genocidal violence was unleashed against the Rohingyas in Arakan in 2012. Around the same time the government of Bangladesh took a firm stand to not let in any more refugees. In an interview with Barnaby Phillips of Al Jazeera on 27th July 2012, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina repeatedly asserts that it is not the country’s problem to deal with the Rohingyas and she cannot intervene because it is unwise to meddle in the internal affairs of another country. She also says that the international community should insist on Myanmar taking back the Rohingyas and not point an accusing finger at Bangladesh. Responding to accusations that the fleeing Rohingyas are forced back by the Bangladeshi border guards she responds that the guards have responded in a humanitarian way and offered money , medicine and food the Rohingyas and the ‘persuaded’ them to go back. As a result, increasingly, the Rohingyas are forced to seek shelter elsewhere. A large number of them take to the seas in hope for a better future in Southeast Asian countries whereas increasingly bigger groups take the land route and are coming into India. At present they are scattered all over in Jammu, Delhi, Mewat, JAipur, Hyderabad and the jails of West Bengal. Further, UNHCR finds them unique among all the refugee groups in India for their mobility making it difficult to track them and get them registered for the Refugee Status Determination process.

Sanlaap, an NGO working with trafficked women and children based in West Bengal, reports that Rohingya children started coming into their shelter homes in large numbers since 2012 and at one point they were providing shelter to over 40 children, most of them girls. The girls come to Sanlaap through the state Child Welfare Committee. Usually large groups of Rohingya, being smuggled across the borders are captured and sent to Correctional Homes under the Foreigners Act of India. Men, women and children are separated and the children end up in shelter homes. Sanlaap conducted a study in the Rohingya settlements in Jammu and Delhi as more and more relatives came to the shelter from settlements in these two states, claiming the children as their wards. Their reports from the settlements talk about a different kind of insecurity for the Rohingya, particularly the children going back from the shelter to be reunited with their families--the unsanitary condition of the camps, along with the lack of access to basic health care, sanitation, clean water besides education and means of employment, means that the children face malnourishment, all kinds of physical unsafety and, especially the girls are prone to early marriage and in some cases trafficking.

In an interview with seven minor girls residing in the Sanlaap Shelter Home in Kolkata, the ideas of security and insecurity are thrown in sharp contrast. On the one hand, in their imagination their native villages in Arakan are the idyllic places where they had freedom to roam, swam in lakes, took the buffaloes to the field and where the food is without compare to the stuff that gets dished up here. On the other hand the idea of Jammu--this mythical place where everything will become alright--has also taken a hold of them. In her 1943 essay ‘We Refugees’ Hannah Arendt writes about the ubiquitous Mr Cohn, the prototype of a stateless German Jew in Europe who tries to adapt to every new country by becoming the model, patriotic citizen but is suspect everywhere and denied citizenship because of his Jewishness which he tries so much to hide. The Rohingya girls, with their slightly accented Bangla and refusal, at least initially to talk in their mother tongue and constantly trying to fit in with what they imagined to be my narrative as an Indian reminded me strongly of Mr. Cohn. They refuse to criticise their Indian shelter mates instead choosing to focus on the Bangladeshi girls who make their lives miserable and treat them as outcasts. When I ask about the choice of their destination as they fled with their families and neighbours from Arakan and ask them if their families ever considered going to Pakistan, one of the girls responds uncertainly: ‘But isn’t Pakistan an enemy of Hindustan’?  In course of the three hours long interview the girls begin to open up to me, teaching me words in the Rohingya language and then singing songs for me. I was recording their conversation in a voice recorder and eager to listen to themselves they started by first displaying their knowledge of English and Bangla nursery rhymes that they have learnt in course of their classes at the shelter and eventually a Rohingya love song followed by a  song which called for Rohingya brothers to come together across nations. As they exhausted their repertoires they turned towards reciting Koranic verses learnt at madrasas that they attended in Arakan. After reciting a verse from the Koran--whose meaning they could not recall--one of the girls asked me whether I was Muslim. She looks crestfallen when I said that I was not. Perhaps having the relative freedom of being able to express themselves freely without being ridiculed about their strange language and customs, they had tried to find in me a kindred soul and the closest approximation that they could imagine would be a sympathetic Muslim. In a world where they have only faced rejection as Rohingyas, as girls brought up in conservative social environments where boys are allowed to venture out and watch Bollywood films but not girls, as illegal trespassers in a country, as alien by the girls in their shelter homes, it must be difficult for them to imagine kindness outside the family. Living in a shelter forcibly separated from their families in jails, they only dreamt of Jammu where they would be reunited with their families. The better health, education, clothing and shelter that the staff at Sanlaap rued were conspicuously absent in the Rohingya settlements did not at the moment hold any attraction for them. I asked them about their leisure and they all named their favourite television serials, their favourite actors and so on. This conversation followed closely on the heels of the revelation that it was ‘gunah’ for girls to wear make-up, or watch Bollywood films back in Arakan. I asked them if they will not miss this when they went to Jammu. They uniformly replied that they would not and they knew it was gunah but it was okay to watch television at the shelter because they are suffering so much right now. They will never miss any such worldly entertainments once back with their families in Jammu. While these assertions were partly performed for my benefit to show their loyalty to their families, it is also true that these girls viewed their families as their only refuge and shelter. Being together as a family in a world which only displayed hatred and indifference towards them seemed important beyond anything. It remains to be seen how they cope with the harsh realities of life in the settlement camps of Jammu.

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