In the midst of the deepening Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, India’s government has decided to go ahead with its plan to deport thousands of Rohingya refugees.
The government argues that keeping the Rohingyas is a security threat India can’t afford to take. But the plan is facing stiff resistance within the country and outside.
And, as Bismillah Geelani reports, the battle is now being fought in India’s Supreme Court.
Forty-year-old Mohammad Shabbir lives in a refugee camp in New Delhi with his wife and three children.
The family came to India in 2012 fleeing persecution in their home country Myanmar.
Shabbir earns a meagre living as a street vendor. But for the last few days, he hasn’t been able to work. The fear of being deported is constantly on his mind.
“We came here to save our lives and after all these years we thought we are really secure but suddenly there is this talk of deportation. The entire Rohingya community is worried about what will happen to them,” Shabbir explained.
“Everybody knows about the current situation in Myanmar and in the midst of all this, the decision to send us back would be cruel and atrocious.”
Thirty-two-year old Tasneem lost her home and several relatives in attacks on Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Western Rakhine State. She says she would rather die here than go back.
“They killed everyone. They threw petrol on our house and set fire to it. My mother, father, my brother and his children all were burned to death,” she sobbed. “Where will I go now? They may as well kill us here, that is better.”
The Indian government plans to deport Rohingya back to Myanmar, where violence against them has escalated in recent weeks.
About 40,000 Rohingya took refuge in India in 2012, after violent attacks targeted the Muslim minority group in their home country, Myanmar.
The government at the time allowed them to stay.
But since the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, came to power in 2014, there has been a growing clamour from Hindu groups’ who want to see Rohingya evicted.
In response, earlier this year, the government announced plans to deport Rohingya.
And now, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiran Rijiju, says the government is pushing ahead with the plan.
“We have instructed all the state governments to immediately constitute a task force in each district, identify the Rohingyas wherever they are and start the process of deportation. It is a legal process,” he claimed.
The government claims the Rohingya have links with terror groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS and pose a serious threat to national security.
But human rights groups reject this claim. Colin Gonzalves is director of the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network.
“The UNHCR has interviewed all these refugees and has given all of them a refugee card and the refugee card says that if this person is send back to his country, will suffer persecution and death.”
Gonzalves continued, “the UNHCR does a very thorough investigation into the background of a person. So they are thoroughly screened. They have certified all of them to be genuine refugees; they will not give a card to a person who is a terrorist.”
The United Nations has severely criticized India for the decision to deport Rohingyas.
India’s National Human Rights Commission has also said that this is a human rights issue.
The government’s decision has sparked massive protests across India and thousands have come out in support for Rohingya refugees, demanding the government reverse its deportation decision.
“We stand with Rohingyas and in siding with them today we are upholding the age old Indian tradition of being open to refugees and people facing persecution and oppression,” said 45 year-old protester Nisar Amad. “The government cannot go against this tradition.”
The fight for Rohingyas has now reached the Supreme Court with the Rohingyas themselves and some civil society groups petitioning for a hold on the proposed deportation.
Senior Supreme Court Lawyer Prashant Bhushan is representing the Rohingya petitioners in court.
“We have pointed out that this would be a gross violation of all principles of international law and various international conventions to which India is a signatory and which say that you cannot send back refugees in a situation where there would be a serious threat to their life and limb and therefore they should be allowed to stay here,” he said.
India’s is home to more than 2 million refugees from several countries.
Many of them have been here for decades.
But in the Rohingya’s case, Bhusahan says, the government is trying to give a communal colour to a humanitarian crisis.
“It is really unfortunate that the government is going back on its commitment to refugees, which it has reiterated several times in the past, merely because these Rohingyas are Muslims,” Bhusahan said. “This is clearly a case of religious discrimination.”
Despite government’s advice that the court should stay out of it, the Supreme Court has decided to hear the plea.
The hearing will begin next month. The fate of Rohingya refugees in India now hinges on the court verdict.