They are State-less, with Myanmar disowning them; they are dying, with 1,00,000 homeless; and they are forgotten, with the Muslim Rohingyas not an attractive cause for the world. Around 14,000 of them are registered refugees in India, eking out a living in slums, and, till lately, free of politics. The Sunday Express tells their stories of flight and hope.
On October 9, 2016, about 400 armed men attacked three Border Guard Posts on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in the north-western state of Rakhine, home to 8,00,000 to 1 million Muslims who call themselves Rohingya. Nine policemen were killed; eight of the attackers lost their lives.
Myanmar blamed the Aqa Mul Mujahideen (also known as Harakah Al Yaqin or Organisation of Faith) and launched a massive crackdown on the Rohingyas. Fearing for their safety, thousands of Rohingyas fled across the border to Bangladesh; the International Crisis Group estimated that about 27,000 of them had reached by November. The number could be double now.
In Myanmar, the word Rohingya is taboo. The government terms them “Bengali,” the ethnic description deliberate, meant to drive home the national belief, and Buddhist Myanmar’s official position, that the Muslim minority in Rakhine, different from the country’s Burman Muslims, are recent migrants from Bangladesh, a charge that has been angrily rejected by Bangladesh. The country has also not recognised the Rohingya as among its 135 ethnic groups under its 1982 citizenship Act.
The last big displacement of the Rohingya was in 2012, when a large number of them arrived in India. The UNHCR says approximately 14,000 Rohingya are spread across six locations in India — Jammu, Nuh in Haryana’s Mewat district, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Chennai. It has given Refugee Status certificates to approximately 11,000 Rohingyas in India; the remaining 3,000 are “asylum seekers”. But more importantly, the Indian government has given Long Term Visas to 500 Rohingyas, which, an UNHCR official in Delhi says, will help them open bank accounts and secure admission in schools.
But India, wary of China’s influence in Myanmar, has made no official comment about the handling of the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar watchers say the Rohingya issue is a “complex” problem, but given the delicate geo-strategic balance, New Delhi would be “unwise” to make any pro-Rohingya statements, and can only “try and persuade” the Myanmar government to find a political resolution. The silence, however, hides a growing unease in India’s security establishment of the consequences, of the heavy-fisted military response by Myanmar, for the entire region.– Nirupama Subramanian
‘We don’t want to go to Bangladesh or Pak, both are equally violent. We are fine here’
HEAVILY pregnant, Taslima fled Prangla village in Rakhine in Myanmar one damp August afternoon in 2010, haunted by the “murder” of a close friend. All 11 family members were huddled together uncomfortably in the back of a jeep, she remembers. “My two-year-old daughter wouldn’t stop crying.”
The family had sold all its belongings for Rs 6 lakh. “If we had stayed back, we would have been killed,” Taslima says. Now 25 and the mother of four, the youngest of them nine-months-old, Taslima lives in a shanty made of bamboo sticks, with tarpaulin sheets stretched over them, in Camp No. 2 of Haryana’s Mewat district, over 3,000 km from home.
There are six Rohingya camps in the district, all within a 1-km radius, set up on state government land. Taslima’s camp is the largest, with 108 families (327 people).
Taslima says they faced constant torture in Myanmar. Then, they killed her friend. “I just couldn’t live there anymore,” Taslima says. “From our village we took a jeep to Mundu, four hours away. The journey cost us Rs 5,000. We waited in Mundu till midnight, and then took a boat to Teknup in Bangladesh. It was a two-hour journey on a small boat that cost us Rs 10,000 per person. We had heard of security personnel in Bangladesh shooting down Rohingyas the moment they got off boats, but fortunately that night there were none. I remember praying the entire time,” she says in broken Hindi.
The family, including her husband Mohammad Noor, 30, stayed in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh for two years. “It was hell. There was no electricity, no water, and hot all the time. Here we have some semblance of a home,” she says.
To leave for India, the men worked as daily wagers for a month in Cox’s Bazar. “We collected Rs 40,000, crossed the Ichamati river on boat and arrived at Basirhat in West Bengal, paying Rs 1,300 per person. But the moment we arrived, police caught us. We had to give them all our money, around Rs 25,000. When we reached Sitapur railway station near Kolkata, we again had no money. We begged on the platform for two days and bought tickets to Delhi,” says Taslima.
Mohammad Naseem, 41, Taslima’s relative and ‘zimmedar (in-charge)’ of Camp No. 2 that has 50 huts, says the first few days were a nightmare, as they didn’t know anybody in Delhi or the language. “Somehow we reached the UNHCR office.”
After getting their refugee cards, the family settled in Mewat. “I also made a trip to Jammu, where I had heard there were many Rohingyas. I stayed there for eight months but couldn’t find a permanent job,” says Naseem.
At Camp No. 2, there is Rohima, who was sold to a Muslim farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur after being brought to India by a dalaal (agent) with six other girls. The 25-year-old now stays with two young children and begs for a living.
Then there is Dil Nahar Begum, 51, who lost her son and daughter-in-law after their boat overturned on way to Bangladesh. And Hasrat Miya who reportedly became deaf in one ear after being thrashed by a guard in a camp in Bangladesh.
Earning a living continues to be tough. “No one is ready to give us a job, they all ask for Aadhaar cards. We have been working as daily wagers in Sohna and Gurgaon, and barely make Rs 300 a day. Some members of the Jamaat-e-Islami group had visited us in Myanmar and told us that life in Mewat will be good. That there is no discrimination between Hindus and Muslims and we will earn good money. But we can’t do anything without citizenship,” says Sona Miya, 30, a father of four, who claims to have been among the first to arrive in Mewat.
Electricity supply to the camps is erratic and there are just two toilets per camp. “The men and children go to the fields to relieve themselves,” says Miya, holding his two-year-old son in his arms.
Last year, the government school in Nuh allowed admission to 35 children from the camps after several protests. “We don’t even get SIM cards with the UN card. There are just five phones with connections in the entire camp, which some locals got us,” Miya says.
Like many others at the camp, Miya too wants to shift to Delhi. “There are more jobs there… Last year in May someone told us about an empty plot in Jaffrabad (northeast Delhi) where we could settle. So 20 of us went there and started pitching tents. But in the night, over 10 policemen came, thrashed us and sent us back,” he says. “We will try again in the summer.”
Taslima says she is in no hurry to go anywhere. “We don’t want to go back to Bangladesh or move to Pakistan, like some Rohingyas have. Both countries are equally violent. We are better off here, we are free and alive. We don’t even have to wear burqas. I like wearing salwar-kameez.”–Ankita Dwivedi Johri
‘Was told I could earn Rs 300, I immediately left for Jammu’
WHEN JAHURA Bibi, 60, illegally crossed the borders of two countries in 2009, she wasn’t just fleeing the persecution back home. Her husband, Mohammad Yakub, had gone into hiding and the family — Bibi and her seven children, all minor at the time — were hoping to locate him. That expectant reunion, stifled by a protracted legal battle, would never happen — at least for Bibi.
When the family landed in India, through Bangladesh, they were apprehended by police at Kolkata. A local court sentenced Bibi to 14 months in prison for not possessing valid documents, while sending her children to a juvenile home.
Yakub would eventually discover that his family was jailed in India. “Woh merey ko jail mein mila. Woh hume dhoondtey humarey baad mein Bangladesh se India aaya. (He met me in jail. He came looking for us from Bangladesh),” says Bibi says. Yakub, she adds, got himself a refugee card from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Delhi and spent time in Jammu, where he knew fellow Rohingyas, before reaching Kolkata.
While he succeeded in getting custody of his children, Bibi continued to remain in jail even after the completion of her sentence as she hadn’t yet received her refugee card. When Bibi’s six-year incarceration ended in 2015, however, there would be no Yakub. He had died of tuberculosis in 2014.
“Woh last time, mere ko bachhon ke saath mila tha (The last time he met me was with our children),” says Bibi, now living with her children in a jhuggi at Narwal on the outskirts of Jammu city.
The Rohingyas in Jammu have grown from the single family, which was arrested in the ’80s while attempting to cross over to Pakistan from the international border in the Kanachak sector, with much of the migration coming in the wake of the 2009 unrest in Myanmar.
Though there are no official numbers, a recent police survey found 1,100 Rohingya families comprising 4,500 people in the city, many reportedly lured by the chance of crossing over into Pakistan. A senior police official believes their total number in Jammu may be around 7,000 to 8,000.
Their presence though has become a political and economic flashpoint in a state sticky about its demography and its scarcity of jobs. BJP leaders have threatened to raise the issue of “increasing number” of Rohingya Muslim refugees in the ongoing Budget Session of the Assembly, which began on January 2.“There are no records regarding them, and their settlement in a sensitive border state is a great threat to national security as these people can be easily used by anti-national elements,” BJP Nowshera MLA Ravinder Raina had said.
Without naming the Rohingyas, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Jammu has called the presence of “foreigners” in the city and its outskirts a “sinister campaign” to change the demography of the area by “unseen forces”. It alleged that they were employed by the Railways for loading and unloading of goods trains.
The opposition National Conference, however, says the BJP is opposing the Rohingyas purely on religious grounds and that by the same yardstick, it should also not support West Pakistani refugees, nearly all of them Hindu.
Apart from being a natural choice due to its Muslim majority, the Rohingyas say they pick Jammu and Kashmir on economic consideration. And most of them follow a similar pattern: Once a Rohingya reaches Jammu, he stays a few months and then invites other relatives, informing them of job opportunities and better pay.
Farid Alam, 33, says he came here alone in 2009 and later married. Farid, who has two children — Rukhsan Bibi, 6, and Kashar Bibi, 3 — later called his parents and four brothers. Now, two of his brothers are also married and have a child each.
Zahid Hussain, 45, his wife Rabiya Khatoon and 8-year-old son Mohammad Zubair had left Rakhine in 2009, after the Junta confiscated all his property. He says that when he landed in India, after a guide helped him through Bangladesh, his family took a train to Jaipur, where he worked in a soap factory for Rs 150 a day. It was while he was seeking refugee status at the UNHCR office in Delhi that he came in contact with other Rohingyas, who told him that they had been working for Rs 300 a day in Jammu. “I immediately made up my mind, returned to Jaipur and left for Jammu along with the family,” he added.
The Rohingyas here work as ragpickers, collect scrap, work in wholesale vegetable and fruit mandis, shops and even local industrial estates in Jammu city and its outskirts. They have set up their clusters around Muslim-dominated localities of Jammu and its outskirts, where landowners charge them Rs 500-800 per jhuggi. While they are not entitled to electricity or water supply, the local landlord gets a water connection in his name for a cluster of 10-12 jhuggis and charges them an additional Rs 200 each for electricity supply.
Local NGOs have chipped in, running schools for the children, setting up community sheds and even toilets for the Rohingyas. With donations from local Muslims and other Myanmar refugees, pre-fabricated huts with tin sheds have come up at a place in Narwal where three Rohingyas were killed when a blaze reduced 81 jhuggis to ashes last November.–Arun Sharma
‘So much land. Can’t govt give us some?’
“Ae Burma, this man wants to talk to your people,” an autorickshaw driver hails Mujib, in a lane outside Welcome Colony, home to a majority of the Rohingya families in Jaipur.
‘Burma’ is the generic term used by locals for people of this colony. For them, it is a pool of cheap labour. Mention Rohingyas, or even refugees, and the locals shrug ignorance.
Mujib, 27, left Buthidaung in Rakhine about a year ago. He crossed over to Bangladesh and into the heart of “Hindustan” — as the Rohingyas call India — through Kolkata.
Welcome Colony houses around 300 Rohingyas in the heart of the city, next to a choked drain. Squatting on government land, it draws its name from Welcome Hotel nearby. The other two camps are in Hathwara and in the outskirts of the city.
Headed to the home of “the more vocal” Kadir Hussain, Mujib, who has picked up Hindi, stops to drop off a sack full of trash he has collected through the day at what looks like a garbage collecting point.
“This is what what most of us do here,” Mujib says. “There are a few who pull rickshaws, but most are garbage collectors.”
Children share space with roosters amid heaps of garbage. The women swiftly move into houses at the sight of strangers.
“Why did we leave? When the government does not want you around, there is little else you can do,” says Kadir (50).
He adds that they didn’t have a destination in mind. “We did not plan for Jaipur or Jammu, nobody promised us anything, there was no leader. Everyone just wanted to save themselves.”
Kadir’s small house, for which he pays Rs 2,500 as rent, has a makeshift partition; on the other side are his newly married son and daughter-in-law.
His face lights up as he talks about his 10-acre paddy farm in a village in Maungdaw city. “We had a large house there, with five rooms for the family and space left over for guests,” he smiles. “But the government just took it away. Officials come with measuring tapes, and that’s it.”
On why he came to India, Noorun Amin, at the Hathwara camp, says, “Hindustan has never asked us for our identity. It has allowed us to earn a living and live without the fear of violence. It is like a mother’s lap.”
The refugees say they don’t face many problems in Jaipur, since most of them have identity cards issued by the UNHCR. They are, however, required to register themselves with the Sodala police station nearby, “once or twice a year”.
Most of the children study at a nearby madrasa. Around 50 go to a primary government school.
What’s weighing most on their minds here is that the drain by which most of them live may be demolished soon. “Once that happens, they will evict us. We don’t know where we will go. People don’t rent out their houses to ragpickers,” Amin says.
“We don’t demand anything from the government here, no citizenship or any other rights. The government has so much land. Can’t they give us some?” he says–Mahim Pratap Singh
‘We call back home only at night’
AT THIS two-storey community hall in Kelambakkam, a Chennai suburb, cotton saris act as a partition for Rohingya families. There are 19 families living here, including some 40 children, dependent on the scrap they collect every day.
Their journey to Tamil Nadu, through Bangladesh and Kolkata, was through middlemen. The first of the families landed here weeks after the riots in July 2012 left hundreds of Rohingyas dead.
“We paid Rs 9,000 per head to flee Bangladesh. It was a long bus journey to Kolkata. We spent only two days there as there were so many criminals and thieves around. An agent promised us the work of collecting scrap in Chennai,” says Mohammed Yusuf, the 28-year-old representative of the group.
They first moved to the community hall four years ago, and say they also earn more now. “The agent promised us Rs 400 and finally paid us only Rs 100 or sometimes just gave us food. Now we earn up to Rs 300 per day,” says Muhammed Rafeeq, who has a family of six.
The Rohingyas say most of their money is spent on mobile data packs — their only window to those left behind in Myanmar. “We call them only in the night as using a phone is also a crime there. My sister was sentenced to three years after she was caught talking to me,” says one of them, who did not want to be named.
The UNHCR discovered their presence in Chennai only in 2014, when members of a local masjid brought five families to it. “Then UNHCR officials started proceedings to get them registration cards,” a senior state government official says.
“If the UNHCR helps stop the violence in Myanmar, we will definitely go back,” says Noor Khaida, 16. Meanwhile, she has learnt to read and write Tamil–Arun Janardhanan
‘We wanted to live in a place with some Muslim population’
Zia-ur-Rahman of Al Le Than Kyaw village, Rakhine, says it was but natural that he came to Hyderabad. “We are welcome here, unlike in Bangladesh, where they despise us. At the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, migrating to Hyderabad is the first preference,” says the 30-year-old, standing outside his hut in Hyderabad’s Camp No. 8.
There are 3,200 Rohingyas living in 12 camps around Hyderabad, as per UNHCR figures. Their stories almost all mirror Zia-ur-Rahman’s, who fled after sectarian violence in 2012. The camps have huts of cardboard and blue plastic sheets, for which each family pays Rs 600 as rent to the plot owners.
Two weeks ago, two community toilets came up in Camp No. 6, with the help of the UNHCR and Confederation of Voluntary Organisations (COVA), and water connection was provided.
A majority of the Rohingyas in Hyderabad work in meat factories and meat shops. “They earn Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 a month. The rest work as scrap collectors or daily wagers,” says Zubair Mohammed, the coordinator at the UNHCR office at Chandrayangutta.
Aziz ur Rahman, in Camp No. 11, says there are few elderly in the camps, as they generally stay back in Bangladesh and send the younger ones to India. “They arrange the marriage of their sons or daughters and the couples leave for India together. It ensures safety for the girls, and also the couples have a chance of getting rehabilitated quickly,” says the 24-year-old.
In Buthidaung Township area in Rakhine, he was a well-to-do landlord, living in a two-storied house with his wife and two children, says Mohammed Nazrul, in Camp No. 6. “When violence started in 2012, the government took away my land. We fled to Bangladesh. Then, I worked as a labourer at Cox’s Bazar and paid an agent Rs 6,000 to help us cross over into India. In Kolkata, I worked as a labourer for a fortnight and saved money to purchase train tickets. From Howrah, we came to Hyderabad,” says the 40-year-old.
Nazrul remembers the 26-hour journey, 14 months ago. “We had no money to even purchase food on the train. When we got down at the station, some autorickshaw drivers pooled money and gave it to us.”
At the camp, the family shares a small hut with four others who arrived recently. A portable TV occupies pride of place, drawing many from all over the camp to watch Bengali and Hindi serials and movies.
Zia-ur-Rahman says he and his friend Zazumddin, from Drajaza village in Rakhine, first travelled from Kolkata to Punjab, where they worked at a meat factory. “But we wanted to live in a place with some Muslim population… We work as scrap collectors and make Rs 300 each per day,” Mohammed Salim says, who met Zia-ur-Rahman first at Cox’s Bazar.
He adds that he continues to be in touch with relatives and friends back in Rakhine. “The news gets worse each passing week. We think of home but I do not think we will ever be able to go there.”
Rashida Begum, 21, in Camp. No 12, shudders at the thought of it. “They will chop us there. In whatever conditions we are living here, we are much better of,” says Rashida, who fled from Caab Bazar.
The Rohingya children go to two government primary schools, and two private schools. “Some eight-year-old kids recently had to start from Class 1,” a COVA offical says.
Zubair Mohammed, 26, the coordinator at the UNHCR’s Hyderabad office, is one of the few Rohingyas to have studied in an English-medium school, and hence crucial to helping newly arrived refugees settle in.
He arrived with his young bride at Hyderabad in August 2015. Unlike the others who left Bangladesh in haste, Zubair says he and his father stayed there for 12 years, doing odd jobs. Finally, before he left for India, the family married Zubair to a girl from their village.
After duty hours at the UNHCR office, where he works as an interpreter, he runs a mobile accessories shop.
Sitting at a house that he has rented out, overlooking the slum with other refugees, he says he misses his parents and grandparents, “who refuse to come and prefer to live in Bangladesh”. And keep hoping that one day they can go back to Myanmar–Sreenivas Janyala
‘Here, even children carry mobiles’
“They stabbed me, snatched all my money and screamed in my ear: yayi kepra (You are a guest here),” says Mohammad Salim, sitting in his two-storey tenement in a refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj. “I knew right then that I had to leave Rakhine state,” he says, holding back tears. “I was convinced Burma is not my country.”
Salim arrived in India a little over a year ago, taking the same route that thousands from his community have taken since 2010 — a midnight boatride to Bangladesh, dodging security personnel, a one-week stay at a refugee camp in Bangladesh, and finally another boat journey to the West Bengal border.
“I had to pay off people at every stage. I had left my village, Tanmyahati, with Rs 2 lakh. By the time I got to Kolkata, I was broke,” he says.
Now the 30-year-old stays with 45 other families in Kalindi Kunj, one of the only official Rohingya refugee camps in the Capital. Multi-storey homes made of wood planks, cardboard, plastic sheets and just about any scrap material line the narrow pathways of the settlement, that was built on land donated by the NGO Zakat Foundation.
It was Salim’s grandmother, Zora Hatum, 70, who first came to India in 2012. “I told the 10 others in the family that you come when I tell you it is safe. I am old, I didn’t care if I died on the way,” says Hatum, adding that she hasn’t bothered about getting a refugee card made. “I will die soon, what is the point?”
Salim, who speaks in broken Hindi, works at a chicken farm in Panipat for Rs 3,500 a month. “I feed the chicken and clean the place. We have rooms to stay there. I come here on weekends,” says Salim. He wants to eventually go to Saudi Arabia when he saves up enough. “I have heard a lot of money can be made there.”
In the past four years, says the camp’s 38-year-old zimmedar Abdul Karim, the 215 people in Kalindi Kunj have largely settled down. “Most of the children go to the government school in Jasola Vihar. The rest go to a madrasa in the camp. A few educated men from back home take turns to teach there. We also have our own masjid and shops,” says Karim, who runs a small grocery store.
Unlike the Rohingyas in other parts of the country, most of them in the Capital have long-term visas which entitle them to admission in government schools and to government hospital facilities. “We don’t get anything else. Earlier, NGOs would give us blankets and rice,” adds Karim. The visa has to be renewed every year.
Mohammad Johar, 23, says the visa has done little to improve their lives. He teaches at the madrasa for Rs 5,000 a month. “I have been in India for five years, but couldn’t find a job,” says Johar, who was married at the camp and now has a one-year-old child.
Johar also regrets that there is very little coverage on Myanmar in the Indian media.
A kilometre away from Kalindi Kunj, 65 Rohingya families live in a slum in Shaheen Bagh. It is not an official camp, and the over 300 Rohingyas here share space with migrant labourers from Bihar and Assam. Manohara Begum, 18, lives with her husband, who works at a construction site, and two-year-old son. “My family — parents, two sisters and three brothers — arrived in India with a dalaal and got dropped off at a chicken farm in Panipat. He charged us Rs 30,000. I don’t even remember the route we took, it all seems so hazy now,” says Manohara, asking her mother how many years it has been in India. Her mother, Dilma, 48, tending to her own newborn, looks confused. “Maybe four,” she says.
Manohara says she likes Delhi. “People are nice, they even helped me learn Hindi.”
Looking at her son, who is sitting near a garbage mound, she adds, “Chote-chote bacchon ke haath me mobile hai yahan (here, even children carry mobile phones). In Myanmar, our phones were snatched and police asked for fines as high as Rs 3 lakh… We are here for now, in the future we will go where the government sends us.”–Ankita Dwivedi Johri