Rohingya Refugees Choosing To Flee To Bangladesh Over Risking Separation, Detention In India

As India takes an illiberal turn, more and more Rohingya refugees in India choose fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh as a better option than getting prosecuted for 'illegal infiltration' or deported to the Myanmar they had fled in fear.

Hasina Begum's children showing their UNHCR documents.

Last month, Hasina Begum, a Rohingya woman who was deported from India to Myanmar earlier in March, reunited with her family in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh at a refugee camp housing nearly 10 lakh Rohingyas who have fled Myanmar.

Begum, 37, was among 170 Rohingya refugees who were detained last year from a refugee camp in Jammu and sent to a “holding centre” in Hiranagar, Kathua district. Begum, like other detainees, was separated from her husband and three children, who kept waiting for her at the Jammu camp for over a year before being told by police that she had been deported to Myanmar in March. Luckily, she contacted them from Cox's Bazar, which eventually led to their reunification. Scores of other Rohingya are scared of facing a similar fate.

The fear of separation from families and of random detention is forcing India's Rohingya refugees to flee in large numbers. “Recent deportations have scared the refugees living in Jammu, and they are leaving in large numbers because they don’t want to go back to a place where they were butchered,” says Ali Johar, who represents the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. “Especially, nobody wants to be separated from their families, and hence they are leaving these camps en masse,” Johar adds.

Aalam, a 28-year-old refugee living in Jammu, tells Outlook that hundreds of refugees have fled the camp in Jammu because they fear being separated from their families. Left with no money for travelling, they often end up selling their belongings. “We have sold everything, including fans, coolers and refrigerators, because we need money to leave this place,” says Aalam, whose siblings and mother are living in the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Most of the refugees want to go to Bangladesh, but not everyone makes it. Fleeing from the fear of being deported, they are often detained in other states while traveling. In May itself, at least 26 Rohingya refugees were detained in Assam and 24 in Tripura. Most of them were reportedly travelling from Jammu.

In India, there are currently an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees. At least 20,000 of them have been registered as refugees with the UNHCR. “Rather than deporting us to Myanmar, the authorities [in India] should kill us here once and for all,” Aalam tells Outlook, adding, “We don’t want to live in the constant fear of being detained or sent to a country where we were persecuted. This fear kills us every day.”

“This [forced deportation] goes against the principles that India has held in the past, when so many refugees, whether from Tibet, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or other places, received sanctuary,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tells Outlook. “India has a responsibility to work with the global community to ensure the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya to Myanmar, instead of threatening this desperate refugee community with deportation or arrest,” she adds.

India as such has not implemented thorough refugee regulations, and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Nevertheless, the administration has the authority to consider anyone as trespasser under the Foreigners Act or the Indian Passport Act, and declare any group of refugees as unlawful immigrants, as it has done with the Rohingya, despite UNHCR verification. However, the refoulment or forcible repatriation of refugees to a country where they fear persecution, is against the rules of international customary law, says Delhi-based Human Rights activist Kavita Krishnan.

Krishnan adds, “The atrocious refoulment of Rohingyas is motivated by communal sentiments, which are fanned by the current party in power.” In 2017, anti-Rohingya campaigns in Jammu were in full swing, systematically demanding the removal of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees from Jammu and Kashmir. Billboards were erected at various parts of Jammu city, asking locals to “wake up” and unite to “save history, culture and identity of Dogras".

Harsh Dev Singh, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP)—a political outfit that had held protests in Jammu against the settlement of Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims—had told the media in February 2017 that “it [presence of Rohingyas] is a conspiracy to reduce the Dogra population to a minority in their bastion Jammu, by engineering demographic changes”.

Ganguly tells Outlook, “Many BJP leaders seem unable to distinguish between irregular Bamgladeshi immigrants who come looking for jobs, and the Rohingya, who are from Myanmar. They also accuse Rohingya refugees of terrorism, which is untrue.”

According to news reports, between 2016 and 2021, 12 mysterious fires broke out in Rohingya camps. In Jammu alone, there have been at least four such incidents of fire. It was said that the fires were accidental, and in some cases, triggered by short circuits. But controversy erupted on April 15, 2018, when, after a fire gutted a Rohingya camp in Delhi's Kalindi Kunj, BJP youth leader Manish Chandela tweeted: “Yes, we did it and we do again #ROHINGYA QUIT INDIA. […] Well done by our heroes. Yes, we burnt the houses of Rohingya terrorists.”

Public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan had even filed a complaint against Chandela. A news report published in March 2022 claimed that “it would not be much of a leap to assume that most fires [at Rohingya camps] are arson”.

A lawyer working closely with Rohingya refugees tells Outlook that Hasina Begum’s reunion with her family was a rare occurrence, no less than a miracle. He adds that most of those who flee may not be able to reunite with their families. As for those who get deported, authorities in Myanmar are back to indiscriminately persecuting the Rohingyas.