Mohammad Salim was working past midnight, installing water pipe, when he received a phone call. “There is a fire at the shelters,” the caller told him.
Flames had engulfed Jamaat Ali Camp, the collection of wood-and-cardboard homes where his family lived in Jammu, in the far northwest of India.
A Hindu-dominated city, Jammu had also become a haven for people like Mr. Salim, 33, a Muslim Rohingya who had fled persecution in Myanmar. More than 5,000 Rohingya had come here, local authorities estimated, and built a small community on the fringes of society.
Then came the fire on Nov. 26, 2016, a tragedy that set in motion a series of events that ultimately caused Mr. Salim to flee again – this time to Bangladesh, where he now lives on a hill in the world’s most concentrated refugee settlement, surrounded by more than 900,000 other Rohingya, including a small but growing number from India and other parts of Bangladesh.
His 2,100-kilometre voyage to the Chakmarkul camp adds a new dimension to the Rohingya refugee crisis that began when some 700,000 people fled a spasm of violence in Myanmar in late August, 2017.
Now, as their settlements in Bangladesh become more established, they are witnessing new arrivals from elsewhere, too, as other governments crack down on a group that has been called the world’s most persecuted – and as other Rohingya seek the relative comfort and safety of the camps.
Immediately after receiving the early-morning call, Mr. Salim raced home. But it was already too late. He arrived to find the charred bodies of his wife and two children. A third child – a four-year-old son – had somehow managed to crawl out of the blaze, but his body was covered in burns. Twenty-eight days later, the toddler died, too.
The cause of the fire was never determined. But it has been followed in India by fires in other Rohingya settlements – with a Hindu nationalist leader claiming responsibility on social media in at least one instance.
For many in Jammu, the fire that took Mr. Salim’s family also cast new light on the existence of the Rohingya in the city, becoming “the trigger for politicians to put the issue of the Rohingya and their supposed association with militancy into the spotlight,” the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network wrote in early 2017.
In the months and years that followed, Rohingya in India were labelled “infiltrators,” suspected of collaborating with local Islamic militants and urged to leave. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government has called the Rohingya a “security threat” and asked state governments to identify and deport them. Last September, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said “the Rohingya are not refugees.” Days later, he said states had been ordered to collect biometric data of the “illegal migrants.”
In Mr. Salim’s hometown, the shifting political winds became quickly apparent. Rohingya are “living in Jammu illegally and want to criminalize our society,” Paviter Singh, leader of a local group called the Jammu Province People's Forum, told UCA News in early 2018.
“The Hindus told us: This is not your place. You have to leave,” Mr. Salim said. He had trouble finding work. Eventually, he gathered enough money to escape to Bangladesh.
Elsewhere in India, other Rohingya have made the same decision, abandoning a place that had become home. In the Uttar Pradesh city of Aligarh, Soyed Korim, 24, married a Rohingya girl, and together they had two children. “We had to earn our own money, but it was a good place for us. There wasn’t any bullying from the government,” he said.
But “when Modi got into office, our situation became very bad,” he said. The family fled after police came to their home several times, telling them to register as Burmese and saying they would be deported to Myanmar, where they feared mistreatment by the military.
“We were scared of being back,” he said. Instead, they fled to Bangladesh, arriving with nothing after Indian security forces along the border found them, beat them with a wooden stick and seized their belongings before releasing them at midnight.
“They told us, ‘Go fast to Bangladesh. If we find you here in the morning, we will shoot you,’” Mr. Soyed Korim said.
In total, roughly 1,500 Rohingya have now joined the Bangladesh camps from India, said Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner. Most have arrived this year. Saudi Arabia also recently deported scores of Rohingya to Bangladesh, although none of those people has been brought to the camps, Mr. Abul Kalam said.
Yet new arrivals continue – more than 15,000 since January, 2018, long after the initial crisis in Myanmar. Some, such as Aman Ullah, 40, are from other parts of Bangladesh. He has lived in Dohazari, a municipality about 100 kilometres from the Rohingya camps, since 1999. But in late February, he and his wife brought five of their children to the transit centre that forms the gateway to the refugee camps.
A traffic accident three years ago left Mr. Aman Ullah unable to work as he once did in local brick fields. “I wasn’t able to properly provide for my family – sometimes we would go hungry,” he said. “So I thought it would be better for me if I joined my people.” In the camps, where basic daily nutrition needs are provided, “I can get everything.”
In Dohazari, his children were unable to go to school because they had no Bangladeshi identification documents. In the camps, aid groups provide basic schooling to a growing number of young people.
Family played a role, too. “Many of our relatives are here,” Mr. Aman Ullah said. Also, “when we lived in Dohazari, the land beneath our feet was not ours.” In the camps, there’s more of a sense of belonging.
Still, it’s a restrictive place, where people cannot come and go as they please, and where opportunities to earn even a modicum of cash are few.
“There is no work for us to do here,” said Mohammad Amin, 35, who also fled Jammu. “It’s like a prison – we are getting rice and lentils. We can’t live without curry. We want to eat fish. We want to eat meat. We want to eat vegetables.”
For Mr. Salim, too, the camps have been bittersweet.
“I did not want to come here. I was forced to come here,” he said. “I don’t know why Rohingya are persecuted everywhere.”
With reporting by Ro Yassin Abdumonab