June 20, 2018

By: Palak Chaudhari

yeh lo Rohingya ka bacha, photo le lo iska, sabko Rohingya ka bacha ka hi photo lena hota hai na.”(Here, this is the child of a Rohingya! Go ahead take a photo, everyone just wants to take pictures of a Rohingya child). Sarcasm is what I was met with when I recently visited a Rohingya camp. The United Nations also affirms that the Rohingyas are among the world’s most persecuted minorities. Escaping persecution in their country the community has fled to Bangladesh and India.

The camp I visited had persons who had shifted from another camp in Haryana, after being promised pakka homes. That turned out to be a farce. The condition at the camp was similar to other camps they lived in other parts of the country, it was a combination of bamboo sticks, tarpaulin and tin. Rife with health and hygiene concerns, especially for women the camp had only one source of clean water among a hundred resident of the camp; education for children was a big concern – there are no schools in the proximity, so the community has built one room out of bamboo and tarpaulin where the elders of the camp teach about 20 young children and very few work opportunities are available for the community members. The camp itself was situated in such a remote part of the state in east India that getting there was a challenge in itself. This too possibly impacts any support or oversight that either the government or non- governmental organizations can provide. As I interacted with them, and asked various questions one of the women said something that, made me feel angry, hurt and helpless all at once. In response to my request to take a photograph of the camp, the woman tugged at her five year old daughter’s arm and told me, here you go take a picture of the Rohingya child, it was a reflection of the psychological trauma these people face, which is going unaddressed.

I realized how we had failed them. Organizations which approached them with promises of support and care, had failed to deliver those commitments. It is a shame, that in the minds of the Rohingya, people only visit to take pictures and not to help them. Her tone was one of anger, and I felt that she resented my presence just because I worked with a non-governmental organization. The reverse is also true, people tend to judge all refugees, without understanding where they come from, and the terrible conditions they’re escaping.

The Rohingyas were rendered stateless with the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, used by the military junta to revoke their citizenship. They are an ethnic minority group, majority of whom are Muslims, who lived in a Buddhist majority country of Myanmar. Over the decades, this minority group have faced constant persecution by the authorities. They have been denied the most basic and fundamental rights, with prohibitions to travel, work or even get married without state permission.

Violence has been unending in August 2017 conditions worsened for the Rohingya as a fall out of attacks on military posts by insurgents alleged to be Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Ever since first hand stories of family members being murdered, houses being set on fire, rape of women, have been printed and broadcasted in media worldwide. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein called it a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and, in a later Special session on Myanmar (5th December 2017), he questioned if “can anyone rule out that elements of genocide may be present?”

Even with pressure from various quarters, it is difficult to say that the plight of the Rohingyas has been adequately addressed. Earlier this month, Myanmar signed a deal with the UN to take the first steps toward repatriating about 700,000 Rohingyas that were displaced. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) promises to establish a “framework of cooperation” in order to create “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of Rohingya refugees. Though Bangladesh and Myanmar had agreed upon the repatriation of Rohingyas back in November of 2017, the Rohingyas believed they would not be safe unless there was some international body monitoring it. However, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the opening statement of the 38th session of Human Rights Council, “although Myanmar has stated that it will investigate allegations and prosecute alleged perpetrators, its actions to date have not met minimal standards of credibility or impartiality…no repatriation should occur in the absence of sustained human rights monitoring on the ground, in the areas concerned.” 

In India, the political stance has been rather unclear. Early this month the Central Government ordered states to confine the Rohingya at pre-determined locations, and note their details-- including biometric data, and ensure that they are not issued documents of Indian identification. The list is said to be maintained for when the repatriation commences, and will be shared with the Myanmar government. This advisory by the Ministry of Home Affairs is a follow-up to the September 2017 advisory by the government that had asked states to recognize the Rohingya populations within their territories, and report them to the Centre. These steps have had both negative and positive impacts on the conditions for the Rohingyas in India. While this might bring some oversight into the places of their confinement, at the same time it also brings in its wake retaliation and incidents of hate crime towards this population.

There could still be ways to protect the human rights of Rohingyas, internationally and domestically. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is absolutely correct in saying that the repatriation process should not begin unless human rights can be guaranteed on ground. The states hosting these refugees should not consider them as a liability or a threat but rather help them. Rohingya are highly misunderstood and that is taking a huge toll on them, physically and psychologically. Domestically, perhaps the intention of the Indian government may be for the greater good of the Rohingya, in terms of restricting them to a pre-designated area, however it appears that this vulnerable group as a result has become an easier target. India should try extend the same protection to the Rohingyas as it did to the Sri Lankans and Tibetans. The conditions must be safe for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. Till then non-refoulment - the principle of customary international law which states that no one should be forced to return to their country where they have a fear of persecution, should be applied. Forcing them out of host countries into Myanmar without ascertaining humane and safe conditions is a violation of their human rights.