Earlier this month, India sparked panic among its long-suffering Rohingya refugee population by deporting a family of five to their home country of Myanmar, where they will most certainly face human rights violations and imprisonment. This expulsion came on the heels of the controversial forced repatriation of seven Rohingya men last October.
For Rohingya refugees currently residing in India, who the authorities claims are as many as 40,000, this second deportation seemed to harbinger a frightful pattern, especially as India's far-right government had previously pledged to deport all Rohingya. Ruling party officials have made such threats despite international law prohibiting states from refoulement, sending persons to nations where they risk persecution. In Myanmar, such persecution is a near-certainty.
In response to the latest deportation, Rohingya refugees eager to avert similar fates began pouring from India into Bangladesh. Bangladeshi authorities estimate that over 1,300 Rohingya refugees have left India and sought refuge in its territory within the last month.
31 refugees - including 16 children and 6 women - were left stranded in the barren "no man's land" along the India-Bangladesh border for four days after Bangladesh denied them entry and the two nations failed to agree on what to do with them. Eventually, India arrested the group on January 22. Like others apprehended as "illegal migrants", these detainees will likely face lengthy jail terms. Such imprisonment violates not only India's own law but also international law prohibiting arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as the customarily recognised right to seek asylum.
Modi’s government made short work of vilifying Muslims and particularly Rohingya, recasting them as terrorists and "illegal Bengalis" (just like the Myanmar authorities do). The BJP has characterised Muslim refugees in India as threats to the very fabric of Indian society and used them as a tool to draw the country's Hindu majority into their far-right movement. Indian authorities ceased to recognise the UNHCR-issued refugee cards of Rohingya, effectively taking away the little amount of legal protection some 18,000 registered Rohingya refugees had in the country. At the moment, virtually all activities and services (including education, work, and healthcare) require a residency-based Aadhar card. According to Rohingya advocates and refugees, these were previously issued to some Rohingya who met the government’s criteria, but this practice has since ceased. Rohingya also face increased surveillance, at times going as far as harassment, with officials repeatedly collecting biodata, fingerprints, and paperwork. In areas where the police are most hostile - like Jammu and Hiryana - refugees fleeing to other parts of the country or to Bangladesh report extortion, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and beatings are also on the rise. Extremist rhetoric has grown especially venomous, with one Jammu official even advocating for an "identify and kill" movement. Extremists have since adopted this mantra, protesting to demand full deportations and using billboards and front-page advertisements to convey propaganda and threats to local Rohingya.
The Indian government appears intent on following dangerously in the footsteps of the Myanmar authorities: intentionally fomenting religious-nationalist fervour and placing thousands of already traumatised Rohingya in a state of constant fear and deprivation.
The government also bars Rohingya from owning property or building permanent structures. This limits them to either renting dirt patches in remote settlements and constructing jhuggis (slum-like shanties), or - for a fortunate few - renting urban flats from sympathetic landlords. Jhuggi dwellers typically face the greatest hardships, as most work in rag picking (waste collection) or other irregular, poorly-paid labour.
Rag picking in particular - perhaps the most common occupation among India’s Rohingya - poses serious health risks, as constantly handling and living amidst waste causes workers - including children as young as five - to frequently contract myriad unidentifiable maladies, while dire sanitation conditions further exacerbate widespread illness. In the squalid settlement of Faridabad, for instance, 180 refugees all working as rag pickers have no latrine in the entire camp, while nearly all residents' income goes to healthcare.
There has also been an increase in hate crimes against Rohingya throughout India, with verbal and physical assaults becoming familiar occurrences for some. Last April, on the very night that an international Rohingya conference was held in New Delhi, the Kalindi Kunj jugghi settlement was burned to the ground. When its 226 residents relocated and rebuilt, their attackers attempted (though fortunately failed) to destroy their settlement again.