Modi’s Islamophobic policies worsen conditions for Rohingya refugees in India

NEW DELHI — After decades of persecution in Myanmar, culminating in the genocidal army crackdown in 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge around the world. Many of those who have fled are struggling to resettle in their countries of asylum, particularly in India, where nearly 17,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps. Many say the opportunities and health care here are worse than in other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees in India not only face deplorable living conditions, but are also increasingly persecuted for the same reason they were in Myanmar: their religion. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has grown since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. In recent years, his government has introduced political changes aimed at making powerless and invisible Muslims — from revoking the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, a Muslim majority state, to the passage of a controversial citizenship law widely protested across India that would render many Muslims effectively stateless. In the process, the Rohingyas became a target of the anti-Muslim right. Now they fear that they will be forced to flee again.

Sabber Kyaw Min, director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative and a refugee himself, can determine when the hatred against the Rohingya started. “Since 2017, our community has been the target of extremist groups in some states of India,” he said. “Camps have been set on fire, refugees have been beaten and hate speech has multiplied against us, and many restrictions have been placed on the mediocre lives we lead. These restrictions include biometric verification and the placement of police personnel outside refugee camps.

NEW DELHI — After decades of persecution in Myanmar, culminating in the genocidal army crackdown in 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have sought refuge around the world. Many of those who have fled are struggling to resettle in their countries of asylum, particularly in India, where nearly 17,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps. Many say the opportunities and health care here are worse than in other countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees in India not only face deplorable living conditions, but are also increasingly persecuted for the same reason they were in Myanmar: their religion. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the country has grown since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. In recent years, his government has introduced political changes aimed at making powerless and invisible Muslims — from revoking the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, a Muslim majority state, to the passage of a controversial citizenship law widely protested across India that would render many Muslims effectively stateless. In the process, the Rohingya have become a target of the anti-Muslim right. Now they fear that they will be forced to flee again.

Sabber Kyaw Min, director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative and a refugee himself, can determine when the hatred against the Rohingya started. “Since 2017, our community has been the target of extremist groups in some states of India,” he said. “Camps have been set on fire, refugees have been beaten and hate speech has multiplied against us, and many restrictions have been placed on the mediocre lives we lead. These restrictions include biometric verification and the placement of police personnel outside refugee camps.

In 2017, Kiren Rijiju, then Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs, said that “the government has issued detailed instructions for the deportation of illegal foreign nationals, including the Rohingya”. Although this is against Indian and international law, it has caused an unprecedented crackdown on the community. In October 2018, Modi’s government blocked refugees from obtaining the Aadhaar card, an essential biometric identification document needed to access basic services, such as banking, healthcare, education and employment in India.

Since then, said Sabber Kyaw Min, the pandemic has only worsened survival problems in a country that offers no legal guarantees for refugees. (India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.) Its community in Delhi, like the refugee communities for Afghans, Somalis and Sudanese, is always on the alert due to the fear of detentions, threats of deportation and increased police repression.


Rohingya refugees across the country say life has not been easy on them. In New Delhi, around 56 slums were set on fire in Madanpur Khadar refugee camp on June 12 due to an electrical short circuit, the second fire in the camp in three years. The refugees seized all the documents they had as they watched their wealthy lives crumble. “In Myanmar, we ran in fear of the military,” said one refugee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And here we were running to keep our future from collapsing.”

Nearby, at Sharan Vihar camp in Delhi, floods claimed their lives on September 1. An 18-year-old refugee, Mohammed Jashim, died after entering water that touched a live wire in his tent as his parents watched helplessly. “Parents kept cursing their fate. They kept saying that the boy wanted to win for them, ”said Noorul Amin, a refugee from the camp.

Mohammed Rofiq, a 29-year-old Rohingya man living in a camp in the town of Punhana in northern India’s Haryana state, also spoke of the flooding. Rofiq lives under three colorful tarps secured with nylon ropes and reinforced with bamboo sticks, like most other houses in the camp. He has patched the holes in his tent almost every week since July due to the monsoon. “When it rains, it fills the tent and our things float before our eyes,” Rofiq said.

Rain also comes with the threat of scorpions, snakes and poisonous insects. Rofiq recalled a recent incident that happened on September 17. “A snake bit a 3-year-old sleeping in our camp. The child turned blue and died instantly, ”he said. “This is the kind of housing we live in; it is our life as refugees.

In another Haryana camp, Hussain, a community leader who asked for his first name only to avoid police reprisal, spoke of similar issues – and financial issues. Hussain once dreamed of becoming a mathematician, but instead worked as a laborer mixing cement on a construction site. Now he is struggling to feed his family. Finances have been dismal, he said, since arriving in India 10 years ago.

Due to the lack of papers, refugees in India can only apply for informal jobs as day laborers, sanitation workers, tailors, tobacco rollers or, like Hussain, in construction. This means no fixed salary, contract or medical insurance. This has led many refugee families to take up low-paid jobs or survive on minimal cash assistance provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Financial insecurity has hit women particularly hard, said Noor Marjan, an 18-year-old refugee. Poverty, for example, has forced some women to use cloth instead of feminine hygiene products like sanitary napkins.

The pandemic has made everything worse. Nasrullah, a refugee from Madanpur Khadar camp in New Delhi who also asked to provide his first name only for his personal safety, said the entire community remained inside the camp to avoid becoming ill, minimizing movement and using strips of fabric as face masks. He later explained, “It wasn’t COVID-19 that we feared. We feared that we would have to die because of the dismal finances for treatment in the hospitals. He took care of his family’s health by having them drink a homemade herbal concoction. He knows the brew has no scientific value, but, he added, it’s the only cure he can afford.

“It would have been better if the virus had killed us,” said Salma Bi, a refugee in a tent next to Nasrullah’s. “Until now, life has consisted of fleeing places. We fled Arakan [Myanmar’s Rakhine State]. We fled Bangladesh. Now, here we have a life, but we don’t really live. It’s like we’re caged everywhere we go.


Fleeing the genocide, Hussain dreamed of living fearlessly in India: studying, earning money and not having to hide his religion in public like he did in Myanmar. “My mother forced me to flee so that I could live,” Hussain said. Like many other Rohingyas, Hussain dreamed that life in India would be worth living, even if it meant starting from scratch. “We used to watch the news about India, to watch Indian movies,” he said. “From Myanmar, we saw India as a democratic and progressive country that valued secularism. “

Since 2014, the BJP has made it clear its goal of marginalizing Muslims. From erecting a Hindu temple on the wreckage of the Babri Mosque to interfering with Muslim marriage laws, the BJP has lived up to its election manifesto. Even as the world battled COVID-19, the BJP was busy spreading lies about how Muslims were deliberately trying to spread the virus. For Muslim refugees, this relentless discrimination has only compounded the existing difficulties of statelessness and limbo.

The anti-Muslim persecution has only worsened this year. In March, around 170 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, were placed in Hiranagar subsidiary prison in Kathua, India, after the government claimed they were illegal immigrants. Parents were separated from children who cried in empty tents and went without food. The refugees are still in detention today.

In August, news of the atrocities against Muslims arrived every week. In major Indian cities, from Ajmer to Kanpur, Indore and Delhi, Muslims have been beaten, forced to chant Jai Shri Ram (Hindu mantras) and have witnessed right-wing Hindu groups calling for their genocide.

Cornered by right-wing extremists, the Rohingya are now worried not only about their living conditions, but also about being driven out of India. “Don’t think of us as Muslims or refugees. Think of us as humans in danger, ”Hussain said. “We are survivors of genocide.

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