Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Rahima Kato, a Rohingya woman, displays identity cards of her family members issued by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at their makeshift camp on the outskirts of Jammu, India, on March 9, 2021.Channi Anand/The Canadian Press

As the Myanmar military burned its way through the state of Rakhine in 2017, targeting the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority, hundreds of thousands fled the country. Most ended up in neighbouring Bangladesh, where more than a million people now live in limbo in the world’s largest refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar, in often dangerous conditions.

Others crossed into India, ending up in urban slums in New Delhi, Jammu and Hyderabad. Today, aid groups estimate there are some 40,000 Rohingya in India, about half of whom are registered with the United Nations, though they receive little attention outside of that country.

A new report hopes to change that, as India prepares to host the G20 summit later this year and participate in the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva. India, like Bangladesh and most other countries in South Asia, is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which creates an obligation under international law to protect people seeking asylum.

“Rohingya in India are officially labelled as ‘illegal immigrants’ and face troublesome restrictions,” write Daniel P. Sullivan and Priyali Sur in the report, published this week by Refugees International, a global humanitarian organization, and The Azadi Project, a U.S.-based NGO focused on women’s rights. “This population is a stark example of both the secondary effects of the Myanmar military’s abuses and the failure of countries throughout the region to uphold the most basic of protections for this population.”

Without protection as refugees or asylum seekers, Rohingya in India face limits on their movement, access to education, health and legal services, and formal employment. They run the constant risk of detention – often in poor conditions – and deportation to Myanmar, a country that has been accused of enacting genocide against their people and is currently in the midst of a civil war.

Despite not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention, India does have a long history of hosting displaced people, most notably exile Tibetans. Many have been able to acquire Indian citizenship, and even those without it have access to education and work permits, as do Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.

The Rohingya have not found such a welcome. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) came to power in 2014, it has been caught up in an increasingly hostile environment for Muslims of all nationalities. In 2019, the government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, which offered status to religious minorities fleeing persecution in South Asia, but not Muslims.

“Right-wing agitators have regularly referred to Rohingya as ‘terrorists’,” Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Sur write.

Even officials who want to do something for Rohingya refugees find their hands tied. In August last year, India’s Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs said Rohingya in Delhi would be provided with housing, basic amenities and police protection. But after a backlash, the ministry reversed course and there was a renewed call for Rohingya to be deported to Myanmar.

Fire hits crowded Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh

Some Indian politicians have called on the country to do more. Shashi Tharoor, a leader of the opposition Congress Party, has twice introduced an Asylum Bill that would create a legal framework for refugees and asylum seekers.

Writing last year, Mr. Tharoor said India’s current policy is a “betrayal” of the country’s centuries-old “traditions of asylum and hospitality to strangers.”

“India ought to be a natural leader on the question of refugee rights on the world stage,” he said. “However, our present actions and our lack of a legal framework does our heritage no credit, shames us in the eyes of the world, and fails to match up to our actual past track record.”

The report this week recommends the adoption of Mr. Tharoor’s bill, as well as ending deportations of Rohingya from India, and providing them access to employment and services such as education.

New Delhi faced widespread criticism last August when it deported Hasina Begum, a United Nations-recognized refugee who had been separated from her husband and children, to Myanmar.

In their report, Mr. Sullivan and Ms. Sur note sending Rohingya to Myanmar is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, under which a person should not be returned to a place where they face risk of torture or cruel and inhumane treatment. This principle is established by treaties to which India is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Treatment of Rohingya in India is a microcosm of the treatment they are facing across the region,” they write. “Rather than re-victimizing Rohingya, India and other countries should be doing more to protect them and to support the Rohingya community in building toward a better future.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles