Rohingya Muslims fleeing from a recent crackdown in Myanmar are heading to India for safety in larger numbers than before. An estimated 40,000 of them are known to have already taken shelter in seven Indian states, but sources monitoring refugee movements suggest the number could be considerably higher.
Since October 9, a military offensive in the Rakhine province of Myanmar where the Rohingyas have lived for generations has resulted in the death of at least 100 people. The army was called in to ‘maintain order’ after 17 soldiers were attacked and killed by aggressive, armed Rohingyas,
according to official accounts. International relief agencies which find it difficult to operate in the affected areas because of restrictions estimate that the toll could be much higher.
Nearly 600 people have been arrested, while curfew orders from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. have been extended for two months.
Since 1982, the 1.3 million-strong Rohingya community has been declared stateless by Myanmar Government, which deprived them at one stroke of basic human rights. As the army hit back against people it described as ‘troublemakers’, large crowds of unarmed Rohingyas tried to flee to Bangladesh but were turned back by border guards. Thousands made their way by boats to Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, which provided them with temporary shelter before pushing them out in the open seas once more.
Many managed to reach Indian shores illegally, some even attempting to enter by the land route. In West Bengal alone, about 1000 Rohingyas have been arrested and jailed from Barasat, Sealdah, and other areas. The state Government contacted Myanmar diplomats to discuss the situation and possible repatriation measures but received no response.
Myanmar as a member of the ASEAN community has come under increasing pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia over its handling of the Rohingya issue. Myanmar’s iconic political head, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was criticised strongly in Malaysia for her silence on the ‘genocide’ of Rohingyas, described as the ‘most persecuted community’ by the United Nations.
Myanmar was forced to call an emergency meeting of the ASEAN. However, observers do not expect to see any significant change in the country’s stance of ignoring the very existence of the community.
Ms Kyi recently cancelled a proposed trip to Indonesia where protests had been planned, and angry crowds nearly attacked Myanmar’s embassy. Her only comment on recent developments was not very helpful. She pointed out that acts of violence had preceded the army's action.
Later, under mounting international criticism, a fact-finding team strongly dominated by Myanmar officials was allowed to visit the trouble-hit areas, where hundreds of houses were burnt, and many people including women shot at or beaten up. But no access was granted to international relief organisations.
Bangladesh, already host to nearly 200,000 Rohingyas settled in camps near Chittagong (victims of a previous spell of ethnic violence in 2012), contacted Naypitaw authorities over the recent developments. Bangladesh does not accept Myanmar’s claim that the Rohingyas are Bangladeshis.
Dhaka insists that Rakhine being a part of Myanmar where the Rohingyas have been long settled, it was for Myanmar to settle its problems. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, pointing to the steps her country had already taken, appealed to the global community to step in and take matters up with Myanmar.
The mistreatment of the Rohingyas has also attracted international attention, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries appealing to Myanmar to work out a mutually acceptable solution. Their suggestions for opening an office in the Rakhines to help the impoverished community materially were rejected.
With all avenues for minimal assistance virtually closed for the unwanted community, it seems only India could be its ultimate destination. This means that from an initial trickle of refugees and fugitives coming in, India could well expect a torrent of such people soon. Several Muslim organisations have appealed to the centre to help and shelter the Rohingyas out of humanitarian concerns. Curiously, they have made no such call to Pakistan or Bangladesh.
West Bengal Government sources and NGOs dealing with issues relating to illegal migration suggest that Government of India must immediately spell out its policy on the Rohingya influx. As things stand, only over 8000 out of 40,000 Rohingyas have been registered as ‘refugees’. The Centre registers only people with a proper visa and other documents, which the majority of those coming over do not possess.
The largest concentration of Rohingyas, (some 6000 people or so) have been accommodated in poorly run makeshift camps in Jammu. They express their gratitude to India, although they do not receive much assistance or attention except from civil rights groups. Some earn by working as daily wage labour in nearby areas.
But it remains unclear which authority should deal with the question of settling or repatriating the Rohingyas now in India. Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Union Home Ministry has discussed or indicated any standard procedures to State Government authorities contacting them for guidance.
As of now, the Rohingyas remain in limbo, if barely alive, struggling to eke out a living in Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. However, most Rohingyas are thankful for the small mercies they have received in India.