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Rohingya live in shadow of deportation

Hamidullah stands in a dump in New Delhi on April 27, 2018 with plastic bottles he has collected. (Khalil Hashmi)
Girls play in a Rohingya camp near New Delhi, on April 27, 2018. (Khalil Hashmi)

NEW DELHI -- Hamidullah is 12, and the Rohingya Muslim boy makes his living as a rag picker, collecting plastic and metal pieces from dump sites in New Delhi. Daily survival is not the only issue he has to deal with; Hamidullah fears a forced return to Myanmar. "If the Indian government sends us back, we may be killed," the boy said. Many Rohingya people in India, who fled their homes after clashes between security forces and armed Rohingya groups, share his fear of persecution back home.

Indian government data show that there are around 40,000 Rohingya in the country. Those holding refugee identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) number just 16,500 Rohingya, and more than 23,000 Rohingya are treated as illegal migrants here and fearful of deportation.

According to Mohammad Shabber, founder of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative in India, some 33 Rohingya have already moved to Sri Lanka, and around 55 families have returned to Bangladesh. "Additionally, a large number is shifting to Nepal," he said.

Living in India is not easy for many Rohingya. Their fear heightened when one of their camps was burned to ashes on April 15 this year, although there were no casualties. Remaining residents suffer from high temperatures and dust storms, and will soon have to endure the annual rainy season, which will start by the end of June.

At the Sharam Vihar camp in the suburbs of south Delhi, Ambiah Khatoon, a 28-year-old mother of four children, is working as a rag picker. She was bitten by a stray dog on her leg while working, but she could not get medical treatment right away because she didn't have enough money. She was able to get a vaccination only two days later. "I was afraid my wife might die in pain, but someone from our community helped with 200 Indian rupees (about 340 yen) for her treatment," said her husband Abdul Shakoor, 36.

According to the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, around 65 percent of Rohingyas are working as rag pickers in India, while rickshaw drivers and construction workers each make up 10 percent. Lack of language skills and education makes it difficult for them to get high-income jobs.

Abdur Rehman, an administration officer at the Zakat Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization helping Muslims, said many Rohingya people living in India are bound to do odd jobs or physical labor. "Most of their settlements are near the border and on the margins of Indian society. Some Hindu extremist organizations see them as Muslim intruders," he explained.

Manish Chandela, a leader of the youth wing of the ruling Hindu nationalist party Bharitya Janta Party (BJP) has openly tweeted, "We burnt the houses of Rohingya terrorists." It is not clear if his claim has any foundation, but the tweet does show that hostile opinions against Rohingya exist in India.

Rehman of the Zakat Foundation explained, "The BJP government has been anti-Rohingya since it came to power, because a majority of Rohingya are Muslims."

In August 2017, Kiren Rijiju, Indian Union minister of state for home affairs, told parliament that the central government had directed state authorities to identify and deport all illegal immigrants including Rohingya. In May of this year, Indian Foreign Minister Sushmas Swaraj visited Myanmar to discuss a variety of issues including the return of Rohingyas, according to major Indian media.

Shabber suspects that the discussion might have included the deportation of the Muslim migrants. "If Myanmar agrees to accepting Rohingyas, India can have a valid reason to push Rohingya back," said Shabber.

Officially, the Indian government is sympathetic to Rohingyas, and wants their safe return and repatriation. Swaraj was quoted in a recent weekly media briefing by her ministry, "I am happy to hear that there has been an understanding between Bangladesh and Myanmar (on Rohingyas' return) ... we believe honest efforts from both sides would bring a solution to Rohingya crisis."

But some Rohingyas and their supporters are not convinced. Fearing deportation, Rohingya filed a petition to the Indian Supreme Court, asking to stop any government move in that direction. Mohammad Shakir, one of the petitioners, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "The government's aim is to deport all Rohingyas."

Human rights activist Suhas Borker said, "Discrimination on the ground of religion cannot be justified. If the Indian government deports Rohingya, it will be criticized by the international community." Borker added that India should be "very careful" on this matter because deported people may radicalize. "India's decision may open the way for destabilization on Indian eastern border," he said.

(By Khalil Hashmi, New Delhi Bureau assistant)

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