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The refugees clamouring for justice from Indian jails

October 11, 2023
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Rohingya, #India, #refugees
by:Zaid Bin Shabir
The tragic death of a detained Rohingya infant exposes a broader story of repression and resolve.

In a fragile tarpaulin tent supported by bamboo poles, 37-year-old Mohammed Rafiq finds himself amid a crowd of people, each gripping an identification card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), his emotions swirling within. Among them, some clutch their parents' cards, while others hold those belonging to their children. For Rafiq, it's his brother's card that he clings to.

In 2012, Rafiq and his brother, Ibrahim, both escaping the intensifying ethnic violence initiated by the Burmese military against the Rohingya population in their native Myanmar, embarked on a journey with their families in search of refuge in Jammu, a city situated in the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir. Their only goal after fleeing their homeland was to secure a safer and more promising future.

But a decade later, their fortunes took a bleak turn. In March 2021, as part of an escalated crackdown by Indian authorities on Rohingya refugees of the Muslim faith, Ibrahim, his wife, and hundreds of other Rohingya individuals were apprehended and detained in a "holding center" located in Jammu's Kathua district.

The crackdown was a culmination of mounting tensions that had been brewing since 2016 when India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raised concerns about the 'growing population' of Muslim Rohingyas in India.

In 2017, the leaders of a right-wing Hindu group in Jammu launched a campaign to expel all Rohingyas from the area. In the same year, Hunar Gupta, a BJP member, petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, seeking the 'identification and deportation' of Rohingya refugees. 

"On the day of their arrest, [my brother and his wife] were asked to come to a police station for a Covid test," Rafiq told FairPlanet. "It was a trap - a pretence of a Covid test, only to take them to Hiranagar ."

Since Ibrahim’s arrest was unprecedented, Rafiq was not prepared for the challenges he and his family would face in the coming days.

A Brother’s Struggle

The Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim, are members of an ethnic group not officially recognized by the Myanmar government. Designated by the United Nations as the "most persecuted minority in the world," they have suffered through recurring waves of violence spanning more than four decades. India is home to an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, with at least 20,000 of them registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Ibrahim and his wife carried UNHCR-issued IDs designated to help "prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation," but were nonetheless detained as India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and does not recognise UNHCR-issued IDs. 

As a result, Rohingyas are continually denied access to education, healthcare services and employment opportunities offered by the Indian government.

Approximately 7,000 Rohingya refugees have settled in and around Jammu, and alarming reports indicate that Jammu and Kashmir authorities have detained about 270 of them. Among those detained, there are 144 women and children.

The detained Rohingya refugees in Jammu and Kashmir have been confined for over two years in the holding facility, with their prospects for the future remaining uncertain. Starting in early May, they've launched several protests, demanding to ascertain the details of their potential release. They were driven by a profound fear that Indian authorities might deport them back to Myanmar, a fate that has befallen some of their fellow Rohingyas.

Since June, communication between these detainees and their families has been severed, leaving them in a state of profound isolation.

"Ever since the protests began, we haven't been able to speak or meet them," Rafiq told FairPlanet. "Why were they arrested? We came here because we had no choice - our own country was killing us."

Aged five and 13, Ibrahim's two daughters now live with Rafiq. Both of them are constantly in tears, he shared, desperate to reunite with their parents. They are among the 21 children in their refugee camp who have one or both parents detained at the holding centre.

"They miss their mother," Rafiq’s wife, Noor Haba, told FairPlanet. "They were last permitted [by the holding centre authorities] to see their parents in June. One of their daughters was only two-and-a-half years old when they were arrested, and she's now five."

Two years ago, Rafiq suffered an accident that left him unable to work, compounding their already dire financial situation. The burden of the 17 euro monthly rent for their makeshift shanty has only exacerbated their financial woes.

"When we visit them at the centre, they ask us, ‘What are you doing for u s[about the detention]’ and all of us cry," said Rafiq. "What else can we do?"

Since his brother and sister-in-law were arrested, Rafiq and his family live in constant fear of detention and deportation to Myanmar. "We didn't come here to settle. We'll return as soon as conditions improve in our homeland," Rafiq told FairPlanet.

Infant's Death Highlights a broader crisis

Five-month-old Umul Habiba was among the 23 Rohingya children born in the Hiranagar Holding Center since it was converted from a prison into a holding facility in 2021. Her parents, Mohammed Saleem and Momina, and 14-year-old brother, are currently detained there.

On 18 July, a confrontation erupted at the holding centre between Rohingya detainees and the centre authorities amid ongoing protests regarding their release. Officials alleged that the detainees had taken three jail staff members as hostages, prompting them to request paramilitary and police reinforcements.

In an effort to "manage the situation," law enforcement used baton charges and discharged tear-gas shells. The very next day, Umul Habiba fell ill and passed away in a hospital.

"It was because of the tear gas shelling that the baby choked, suffocated and died," alleged a Rohingya representative who spoke to FairPlanet on condition of anonymity. "Before this, three more Rohingya detainees had died at the centre."

Although the jail superintendent at the holding centre acknowledged the use of baton charges and the firing of two tear gas shells, he maintained that Habiba's death was not a direct consequence of the clashes.

"She had been frequently sick. On 18 July, she was transported to a hospital, where she was kept on a ventilator. She passed away the next day," Jail Superintendent Kaushal Kumar told FairPlanet.

However, an eye-witness who attended Habiba’s funeral countered Kumar’s claim, claiming that the baby’s legs and chest were swollen. 

Her parents and brother were reportedly escorted in handcuffs to identify her body, which had already been transported to her uncle's residence in Jammu's Bathindi area from the hospital.

"They were brought in shackles and within 15 minutes, they were taken back to the centre," an eyewitness, who wished to remain anonymous, told Fairplanet. "They weren't even allowed to watch the burial." The eyewitness described the situation to be "as cruel as what we endured in [Myanmar]."

Kaushal Kumar, the official in charge of the holding centre, defended the jail authorities' decision to have Habiba's family brought in handcuffs.

"It was a precautionary step. In March 2022, two Rohingya detainees escaped during a hospital visit from the centre," Kumar told FairPlanet. "Since then, it's been a safety protocol to transport Rohingya detainees in handcuffs."

Advocacy efforts escalate

As Rohingya refugees in India grapple with the repercussions of being denied recognition and fundamental rights, activists are tirelessly striving to illuminate their plight, advocate for justice and pave the way for a more compassionate future for this marginalided community.

Ali Johar, a Rohingya refugee activist based in New Delhi, asserted that India is violating the human rights of Rohingya asylum seekers.

"India is not part of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, but it is a signatory to the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], UN Convention Against Torture, Child Rights Convention and Women's Rights Convention," Johar told FairPlanet. "One of these clearly forbids child detention, while one mandates alternatives to detaining women."He believes that India is maintaining a double-standard on the issue of Rohingya refugees."

"While India refuses refugees, it also supplies arms to the Burmese army, which committed genocide. It shouldn't provide arms to Burmese army if it refuses to accept Rohingyas. It's either one or the other," said Johar, adding that he has communicated these concerns to the Indian government and has engaged with diplomatic communities, asking them to call for a termination of Rohingyas' detention and deportation.

Meanwhile. Refugees International, an independent humanitarian organisation, said in a statement that "the death of a Rohingya infant is the symptom of a broader highly problematic detention policy by India and a failure to provide basic protections to a community of survivors of genocide."

"There’s no doubt that India is failing to live up to its obligations within its own constitution and within International obligations in its treatment of Rohingyas," Daniel Sullivan, Refugees International's director for Africa, Asia and the Middle East, told FairPlanet. "Even under the immigration laws, there’s a limit to how long one is supposed to be held and they [Rohingyas] have been held much longer than that."

He added, "Rather than re-targeting and re-victimising Rohingya refugees, India should be offering legal residence, expanded access to education and livelihood opportunities, and exit visas to those already accepted for third country resettlement."

A Legal remedy

In 2017, when two members of  the ruling BJP party filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) at the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking the deportation of Rohingyas, Fazal Abdali was among the few Indian advocates who provided legal assistance to protect Rohingyas from expulsion.

Since then, he has handled over a dozen cases, representing hundreds of Rohingyas in efforts to halt their deportation to Myanmar. According to Indian media reports, Abdali has played a pivotal role in securing the release of at least 25 Rohingyas from detention centres and assisting them in obtaining "refugee" status in India. 

Abdali is currently handling three cases in India's Supreme Court involving Rohingya refugees. Two of these cases are on the issue of illegal detention and the right to food for Rohingyas. In addition to seeking protection from deportation, he has also presented solutions against detention and deportation in these cases.

"Indefinite detention is a form of torture," Abdali told FairPlanet. "Leave aside India's international obligations, it has failed to uphold its own domestic legislations. It clearly violates Article 21 (right to life) of its constitution. And it is not even sensitised enough to humanise refugees."

He further stressed the importance of India seeking an alternative to detention, enabling Rohingyas to pursue a brighter future for themselves.

Image by Umer Asif.

Article written by:
Zaid Bin Shabir
Rohingya children show their detained parents\' UNHCR issued ID  cards.
© Umer Asif
Rohingya children show their detained parents' UNHCR issued ID cards.
A Rohingya woman whose three family members have been held in detention in Jammu since 2021.
© Umer Asif
A Rohingya woman whose three family members have been held in detention in Jammu since 2021.
A Rohingya refugee offers prayers at the grave of Umul Habiba, a 5 month old infant.
© Umer Asif
A Rohingya refugee offers prayers at the grave of Umul Habiba, a 5 month old infant.