The forced migration of Rohingyas from Myanmar has become a new refugee crisis for the international community. In the last two weeks, nearly 3,00,000 of them have fled to Bangladesh from the new surge of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Thousands of desperate civilians are trapped on the border for weeks without food and medicines as Bangladesh is unable to cope with this massive surge. Some of the Rohingyas are even opting to take dangerous boat journey across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asian countries. While the world is at loss how to respond to this large refugee flow, Narendra Modi government is planning to deport back a few thousands of Rohingyas, who are living in India and seeking asylum.
An estimated one million Rohingyas who practice Sufi influenced Sunni Islam to live in the Buddhist majority Myanmar. Though they trace their origins in that country to the fifteenth century, successive governments of Burma/Myanmar have refused to recognize them as one of the country’s ethnic groups and regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas are not only deprived of citizenship and right to vote, the Myanmar government has also imposed on them restrictions on whom and how to marry, number of children they can have and types of jobs they are allowed to. The institutionalized discrimination has led to widespread poverty among this minority population in a poor country like Myanmar. Moreover, this stateless group gets subjected to majoritarian wrath from time to time.
In 2012, the Buddhist nationalists had violently attacked and killed nearly 300 Rohingyas after three Rohingya men had allegedly raped and killed a Buddhist woman. Since then attacks have been regular and large number of Rohingyas have forced to leave their home and migrate, which Human Rights Watch has described as ‘ethnic cleansing’. This state aided majoritarian oppression has also led some Rohingyas to take up arms. The present refugee crisis has come up after massive retaliation by Myanmar army by brutally killing, torturing, raping hundreds of civilian Rohingyas when a militant Rohingya organization, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched a few attacks on police and an army post in August 2017.
While the world is trying to cope with the fresh large-scale forced migration of Rohingyas, India’s Hindu nationalist government instead of adopting the humanitarian approach and helping out Bangladesh to meet the challenges caused by surging new arrivals has even started the process of sending back the Rohingyas living in India. Thankfully, the Supreme Court is presently reviewing the planned deportation of the government acting upon the petition of two Rohingya asylum seekers. However, the government and a section of media are trying to project that the increasing number of Rohingya refugees in the country will encourage Islamic fundamentalism and some of them are not hesitating even to brand all Rohingyas as terrorists.
While the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR says only 20,000 Rohingyas live in India, the Indian government puts this figure to 40,000. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but even under the customary international law it is obligated to protect these refugees and not to send them back to a place where they face danger. However, India has been selective in taking refugees in recent years, it is only allowing Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan and Tibetan Buddhists from China.
There is a growing chorus among the Hindu nationalist politicians as well as commentators in India that while Islamic countries are not accepting Muslim refugees, why India will do it. This line of argument follows the same false and blinkered narrative, which has been promoted in Europe by right-wing groups, particularly since Syrian refugee crisis. A fabricated story has gone into mainstream discourse in Europe that Muslim refugees are running away from Muslim countries to Christian countries for better life. This conclusion completely ignores the fact that only one out of seven forcibly displaced persons move out of the region, rest stay close to their country of origin in the hope of going back after violence comes to an end.
The right-wing groups in the West conveniently forget that the same Syrians refugees were the hosts of millions of Iraqis in the last decade after the American military intervention in Iraq in 2003. Now even, it is not the Christian dominated countries in Europe, but a Muslim country Turkey, which houses most of the Syrians refugees. The Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan since 1980 have displaced millions of Afghans and two Muslim countries, Pakistan and Iran have taken the most of this burden. Similarly, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories have forced millions of Palestinians to live in the neighboring Muslim countries for generations.
It is pure bunkum to tell that Muslim countries have not accepted Muslim refugees or Muslim refugees are not living in Muslim countries. As per a report published by the Amnesty International in October 2016, all the top five refugee hosting countries of the world are Muslim countries. Jordan hosts the most, 2.7 million refugees, followed by Turkey, over 2.5 million; Pakistan, 1.6 million; Lebanon, 1.5 million and Iran, 979,400. To put these figures in right perspective, the USA whose wars are the primary reasons behind this large-scale population displacement houses only 263,600 refugees.
Rightwing groups and commentators, while blaming Muslim countries for not accepting Muslim refugees, usually avoids the above statistics and only point their accusing fingers at Saudi Arabia and other smaller Gulf countries. The oil-rich countries in the Gulf, like India have not signed 1951 UN Refugee Convention but have housed substantial number of Palestinians, Lebanese and Yemenis. It is true that they could do more and accept refugees from Syria, but it has to be noted that most of these Gulf countries host large number of migrant workforce, outnumbering the native population several times and presently facing periodic backlash from their ‘sons of the soil’. Moreover, these countries have contributed significantly to the various programs by UNHCR and UNRWA to support refugee population.
Thus, like their rightwing nationalist groups in Europe, the Hindu nationalists in India are absolutely wrong to argue that Muslim countries are not doing their part to support Muslim refugees. This argument does not hold at all even concerning the Rohingya refugees. A poor and highly populated country like Bangladesh has been and continues to be the primary host of forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands Rohingyas. Some of the Rohingyas who have taken the boat route to flee have also gone to besides neighboring Thailand, to two other Muslim countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is not only illegal but also goes against the basic moral fabric for a country like India to not do its part to provide support and shelter to prosecuted Rohingya Muslims, while they are escaping a marauding army. Instead of accepting more and giving them much needed food and shelter, Indian government is trying to even deport few thousands it has accepted previously. India is not a country for Hindus and of Hindus only. India just cannot afford to wash her hands off its responsibility as a member of the community of nations towards Rohingyas by just creating false allegations and promoting blinkered narratives.