Bengaluru: A few kilometres from Manyata Embassy, one of the city's largest technology parks, in north Bengaluru's Dasarahalli, 315 stateless Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers live in a temporary settlement, one of three such settlements in the city with nearly 500 Rohingya refugees in all, one refugee told IndiaSpend.
These survivors of 'ethnic cleansing' in Myanmar live in tarpaulin tents held up by bamboo poles; the floors carpeted with scraps of gunny sacks and old cloth. About 63 families, including 60 children, are crammed into this one area--six people, on average, live in each tent; each family pays the landowner Rs 2,000 per month as rent, from their meagre earnings as waste-pickers. Their tents are surrounded by mounds of plastic scrap, beer bottles and other sanitary and dry waste, which they collect to earn a precarious livelihood.
Predominantly Muslim, Rohingya are an ethnic group who have not been officially recognised in Myanmar, and have faced waves of violence for over four decades. An estimated 920,994 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar region--the world's largest refugee camp--by January 2022. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India is reported to have registered 23,592 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar until December 31, 2021, there are 18,000 Rohingyas in the country according to January 2019 UNHCR India data. As the "most persecuted minority in the world", as described by the United Nations, the Rohingya are denied basic rights, and face gender-based sexual violence and abuse.
Before persecution and threat to life forced them to flee to India, Bangladesh and other parts of the world, they thrived in East Myanmar's Rakhine state. Now, as refugees, they struggle to find "respect" and livelihood, refugees told IndiaSpend.
Most of the refugees in this camp were farmers; they owned livestock and businesses in their villages. "My family owned 200-250 acres of land, with at least 15 to 20 people working for us. I am not someone who grew up poor or in a slum," said Karimullah, 42, a refugee from Boli Bazaar in Rakhine, who fled to India in 2013 after trekking through forests for 15 days with his family. "We survived by eating leaves, and witnessed others die during our ordeal."
India does not have a national domestic law on refugees and asylum seekers; foreign nationals are governed by a mix of laws which limit access to welfare, support and documentation, and subjects them to prosecution. There is a need for legislation for protecting refugee rights and for making the government accountable for supporting and managing refugees, experts told IndiaSpend. This will ensure that India provides access to basic facilities such as healthcare, rations and education uniformly to the thousands of Rohingyas and other refugees who routinely face threats to life and livelihoods, and also ensure that they are not excluded based on political compulsions and convenience.
Lack of respect and income
Sixty-year-old Sara Khatun greets us with a faint smile that vanishes as she recalls the violence she had witnessed. Her community's relations with the local Buddhist families in her village in Rakhine's Buthidaung may not have always been friendly, but as a child she had not witnessed such atrocity, she recalls. She crossed the border into Bangladesh with her husband, who was a fisherman, after they witnessed killings and assault on their community by the military.
Sara Khatun, from Bhutidaung in Rakhine state of Myanmar, crossed a river and fled to Bangladesh.
Sara Khatun, pictured outside a small shop in the camp, Dasarahalli, February 24.
Photo credit: Shreehari Paliath
"The water was neck deep when we crossed the river, and there were bodies floating," Sara Khatun said. "We were worried that the military, who were posted every 50 metres, would shoot us." Her husband died in a Bangladesh camp, she said. Sara Khatun said she had never imagined that she would end up as a waste picker in an alien land. "I do not have other options, and cannot afford medicines for my health issues if I do not work."
As waste-pickers, the Rohingyas provide a service to the metropolis, but are unable to earn enough for their needs or to find more viable job options. "I make around Rs 300 to 400 a day, at most," says Karimullah, a father of five. "We leave after eating rice in the morning and mostly limit our lunch to tea or water when we are out. If we spend all our earnings on a meal, how will we feed our family?"
He came to Bengaluru from Jammu around five years ago, after Rohingya shanties were burnt.
Karimullah, pictured here in Dasarahalli, February 24, is from an affluent family in Boli Bazar in Rakhine.
He now works as a waste picker earning Rs 300-400 a day, at most, he said.
Photo credit: Shreehari Paliath
Unlike many others, Sara Khatun's nephew James Tahiyat, 25, has been fortunate to be able to access an English education in India, and is now pursuing an advanced degree. His elder brother was killed by Bangladeshi immigrants in 2013, said Tahiyat. Now the eldest among the surviving siblings, Tahiyat spent his initial years in India picking waste in the city before he went to Delhi for his schooling. "Refugee life is difficult," Tahiyat says. "When people see us, they do not respect us except for those who may know about the problems we face."
In 2012, his father Farooq, 55, walked two days with his family--wife and three children--after he witnessed violence and arson by the Myanmar military in the neighbhouring villages, and arrived at Cox's Bazar. "Even when I was young, there were atrocities against us, but not as much," said Farooq, a former carpenter and farmer who owned 15 acres of land.
No data, little protection
While Cox's Bazar is the largest refugee camp in the world, with nearly a million Rohingya refugees, there are no accurate data on the total population of refugees living in India. The "exact population of the Rohingyas from Myanmar is not known," said a December 2021 report on refugees by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), a think-tank.
On August 9, 2017, the Central government said that there were "around 40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country", and that the government had issued detailed instructions "for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas."
On the previous day, the government had issued an advisory on the identification and monitoring of "illegal migrants'', noting that they "not only infringe on the rights of Indian citizens but some also pose grave security risks". It added that "infiltration from Rakhine state of Myanmar into Indian Territory specially in the recent years besides being burden on limited resources of the country also aggravates the security challenges posed to the country."
As India has no asylum law, Rohingya by default become illegal trespassers and are liable to be arrested under the Foreigners Act, said Ravi Nair, executive director of South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC), a human rights network. "This makes them vulnerable to harassment and extortion by police and other officials."
"A section of people disrespect us just because of our ethnic identity and belief. But the Rohingya are a diverse community with various religious beliefs," said Sabber Kyaw Min, co-founder and director, Rohingya Human Rights Initiative and country coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, who has lived in India since 2005.
Though India does not have a domestic law on refugees and asylum seekers, and is not a signatory to the 1951 UN convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol, it is however a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under its provisions, India is bound to provide asylum to those who seek protection from persecution. In addition, judicial orders have provided some relief and filled some of the gaps in legislation.
In October 2021, the Karnataka government, revising its previous stance, told the Supreme Court that it did not "immediately plan" to deport Rohingya people in Bengaluru and other parts of the state, and would comply with the orders of the Supreme Court on deportation.
Over four years to 2021, at least 1,178 Rohingyas were arrested, detained or rescued from trafficking by police in different states, according to the RRAG report. Seven people were arrested during this period in Karnataka. In 2021, at least 354 Rohingya refugees were arrested, detained or rescued, with the most in Jammu and Kashmir (174), followed by Delhi (95).
IndiaSpend asked senior officials in the Karnataka home department, the chief commissioner of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, and the deputy commissioner and district magistrate of Bengaluru Urban for their comments on the survey of and support to Rohingya in the city and state. We will update the story when we receive their responses.
A bill on asylum
In February 2022, Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, introduced a Private Member's bill to provide a legal framework to protect refugees and asylum seekers.
"There is a need to define the legal protections that will be enjoyed by refugees and asylum seekers, along with specifying the conditions under which such individuals can continue to enjoy these protections," Tharoor told IndiaSpend. In the absence of any legal framework, many of them are denied access to basic public services such as education, healthcare, access to jobs and economic opportunities, resulting in exploitation, he added.
A January 2022 National Human Rights Commission discussion noted the need for a law or legislation "to end ad-hocism and ambiguity in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers".
While Tharoor's initiative is well-meaning, a private member's bill becoming an official bill is unlikely, said Nair of SAHRDC. "Other bills drafted by Justice P. N. Bhagwati and redrafted by senior lawyer Rajiv Dhawan also did not get traction, because governments prefer to keep the refugee issue ambiguous for political reasons."
All foreign nationals including refugees are governed by the provisions contained in The Foreigners Act, 1946, The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and The Citizenship Act, 1955, the government told Parliament in August 2021. In 2011, the government issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for handling foreigners. This allows Long Term Visas (LTV) for a maximum of five years, which can be extended to the sixth year based on review by the Home department.
"The SOP assumes that all problems of refugees in their country of origin will be resolved within six years," noted the RRAG report. This is pertinent for Rohingyas, who are stateless and continue to face prosecution in India and persecution in Myanmar for decades.
The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in 2019 provides citizenship to only some persecuted religious minorities like the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, further marginalising stateless communities like the Rohingya who are predominatly Muslim, and are not from the countries itemised in the CAA.
The 2019 CAA makes Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries ineligible and leaves them completely exposed, said Tharoor. "All this can be fixed through one refugee law," pointing to the ongoing Ukraine crisis as yet another example for the need for a comprehensive domestic refugee legislation in every country.
In 2021, UNHCR India registered 5,873 new individual asylum applications for India, a 154% increase compared to 2020 due to the "situation in Myanmar and Afghanistan", according to a 2022 UNHCR India report.
The documentation conundrum
In the Dasarahalli camp, women, in the midst of soaking dry fish and chopping a few vegetables for lunch, complained about limited rations. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, Karimulla said, his family had to manage with half a kilogram of rice daily. "We had to eat less and manage with our provisions for weeks. There was no support."
Rohingya women preparing soaked dry fish and vegetables for lunch, February 24. The unsanitary surroundings in the Rohingya refugee camp attracts flies.
Photo credit: Shreehari Paliath
Refugees registered with UNHCR India receive assistance which is fixed on certain criteria. Due to limited funding, cash-based assistance is provided only to the most vulnerable, based on family size, medical and other vulnerabilities, and disabilities in the family. The Union government provides no assistance to these refugees.
In Bengaluru, 95 families received food ration; 87 women and adolescent girls got dignity kits; 95 families received mosquito nets and 65 refugees were fully vaccinated, according to limited data shared by UNHCR India with IndiaSpend.
"I think we may have received ration five or six times in 10 years," said Tahiyat. Nearly 20 Rohingya do not have UNHCR cards, he said.
The Rohingya have no documentation other than UNHCR refugee cards for those who have registered. Kyaw Min, who had worked in the informal sector for low wages in Delhi before finding employment with the UNHCR as a translator, had his Aadhaar card suspended in 2020 due to discrepancies in spelling. "I was later told by officials that Aadhaar cards cannot be issued to refugees. My LTV has expired, and now all I have is the UNHCR card."
The exclusion from Aadhaar is having a devastating effect on Rohingya ability to support themselves, said a December 2020 analysis by researchers Anubhav Dutt Tiwari and Jessica Field. "In Myanmar, they [identity documents] are essential for citizenship and belonging; in India, identity documents are the key to accessing protection, rights and basic services," their report said. "Yet what remains similar is the emancipatory/repressive/destructive powers that the Indian documentary regime shares with that of Myanmar."
Some Rohingya may have obtained Aadhaar by withholding information, not necessarily by falsifying it, but in any event they should be issued an Aadhaar card which is merely proof of residence and not citizenship, said Nair.
Tharoor agreed, adding that documentation including Aadhaar will help them obtain gainful employment more easily and support themselves in India. "The absence of a framework to make sure that refugees can access basic public services and be able to legally seek jobs and pursue livelihood opportunities will make the refugees vulnerable to exploitation, especially human trafficking."
Lack of access to support and opportunities denies Rohingya their dignity and human rights, said Kyaw Min, who added that many want to return to Rakhine state, but are unable to as they fear for their life.
Sara Khatun, for one, has no hope that she will be able to return. "There will never be peace there," she sighs. "They cannot return what they have taken from us."
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