We are a trail of broken families and a withering community suffering economically and emotionallySalamatullah, A Rohingya Refugee, Jammu & Kashmir
A growing number of children inside the Rohingya camp in Jammu’s Narwal area are experiencing frequent fever, running nose and infectious inflammations spread across their bodies. In one of the shanties, Noor Haba, in her 30’s, is searching for medicine to alleviate the fever of Noor Begum, a five-year-old child whose biological parents have been held at a ‘holding’ (detention) centre, along with other Rohingya for about last three years.
On 6 March 2021, a sweeping detention order was executed in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir – a contentious region between India and Pakistan – resulting in the incarceration of many Rohingya at the Hira Nagar sub-jail in the region. Situated roughly 60 kilometers from the Jammu city, the Hira Nagar sub-jail was repurposed as a ‘holding centre’ for individuals accused of being ‘illegal immigrants.’ At present, there are approximately 274 Rohingya held at the holding centre, including 36 children and 94 females, says Mohammad Amir, a representative of the Rohingya community. “Around six Rohingya have lost their lives in the holding centre in these years, including one minor,” Amir adds.
The detention of Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim community, has compounded the catastrophe for the immigrants who ran away from their homeland for survival. “Noor Begum was just two years old when her parents and two other siblings were taken to the detention centre. Since then, I took care of Noor and her elder sister Haleema,” says Noor Haba.
Twelve-year-old Haleema assists Noor Haba with household chores, while Noor Haba works as a maid in nearby houses and cracks walnuts in a vegetable market to earn a living. “I took their responsibility and informed the community head as well,” says Noor Haba. She has accompanied the two girls to Hira Nagar holding centre multiple times to meet their parents.
“It kills me when Begum looks at her own mother like a stranger. She calls me her mother,” says Noor Habba. For her these girls are like her own kids, and she strives hard to raise them ‘right’ in whatever way possible. “I send all four kids to Madrasa (a makeshift seminary within the camp where they impart both academic and religious education) so that they can be empowered. I don’t want these kids to go through what we have suffered—killing, rape, and the separation from families and homeland in Myanmar,” she added.
Like many other Rohingya Muslim refugees, Noor Haba left her homeland in Rakhine state, Myanmar, which witnessed genocide against their community. Noor Haba moved to Jammu in 2017. However, many Rohingya refugees had already migrated to Jammu in 2012 when ethnic violence against them escalated back home.
Hope amid despair, detention, deportation and death
Mohammad Eliyas, 40, sits in a small grocery shop made of tin sheets, on the boundary of the camp as his face is filled with panic and tears. Disturbing news has spread through the camp that the refugees in the ‘holding centre’ at Hira Nagar have been transferred to Kathua jail in another district of the region. The community representative, along with others, attempt to reassure Eliya about the well-being of his father and brother who are in detention.
“It has been four months since I met my aged father and elder brother at Hira Nagar holding centre, I have no idea how my father is managing his ill health. He is over 70 and has problems in his kidneys. There is no proper food, medicine, or health checkup. Whenever he is in acute pain, they just give him Paracetamol?” Eliyas said. There is no information from the detention centre as the authorities have imposed restrictions on personal and phone communication following clashes at the holding centre in July 2023.
“A few women from our community recently visited Hira Nagar just to check on their families. They discovered that some of them have been shifted to Kathua jail,” says Salamatullah, another community representative. “We fear they will be deported.”
Detained for more than two years, Rohingya detainees went on a hunger strike in May last year demanding their release from the centre. Clashes between detainees and guards erupted again in July 2023, with the detainees reiterating their demand.
Jail Superintendent of the Hira Nagar sub-jail Koshal Kumar, however, claims to have no knowledge of these clashes, stating that he joined recently. He adds that 21 Rohingya were shifted to Kathua Jail in November last year, as they are in judicial custody. “We have not released any Rohingya so far; the government is in the process of taking a decision which may include deportation for some,” he emphasizes.
Eliyas recounts the day of detention saying they were asked to gather at Maulana Azad Stadium in Jammu for a Covid-19 test with their United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards. “There they took many in vehicles without explaining what was happening. They claimed they were being tested elsewhere. After some time, we realized they were arresting us,” he explains.
Adding to the injustices the community faces, Eliyas laments the cost of and restrictions on the visitations. “It would cost me around INR 400 (€5) per visit to the holding centre. Even there, I was not allowed to meet my family in person. We used to communicate via phone, and they would see us through a window from another room.”
Additionally, Eliyas has appealed in the district commissioner’s office expressing concerns about his father’s health. They have promised that something would be done, but nothing is happening on the ground. “They should either kill us here in one go or let us live. We die every day, having left our homes to save our lives, and now here again, we are in crisis,” he says with utter frustration and despair.
A significant concentration of Rohingya populace in India reside in the Jammu city, second only to Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana state in southern India. Salamatullah states that approximately 7000 Rohingya are currently living in Jammu. He further notes, “After authorities detained Rohingya in Jammu, around 60 children are now living in the camp here without their parents.”
According to Ali Johar, a prominent Rohingya activist, since 2017, about 763 Rohingya have been in detention across the country. Additionally, around 2500 Rohingya have returned to the Cox Bazaar Refugee camp in Bangladesh since 2011. Johar noted that a few days after the state government of Jammu and Kashmir detained Rohingya in 2021, the Rohingya community from Jammu protested before the UNHCR office in the Indian capital New Delhi against detentions and deportations, where further 80 Rohingya refugees were detained.
Among the families of the detained, many are surviving without any breadwinner. Community representative Salamatullah says there is no help at present from the government or NGOs, except for Save the Children, who assist the beleaguered community in maternity cases by providing vehicles and a woman helper during the delivery of pregnant women.
“We are a trail of broken families and a withering community suffering economically and emotionally,” says Salamatullah.
However, the persistent, existential crisis has made the community resilient. Many have adopted the children of their community members held at the detention centers. Shobeda takes care of her brother’s four children. “These children have been living with us since 2021. I have five kids of my own. My husband works as a laborer, and we don’t have the resources to manage the expenses.”
For every Rohingya family, a monthly rent of 1500 rupees (€16 ) for the ‘Jugi’—a temporary hutment—is to be paid to the plot owner, along with an additional 500 rupees (€6) for the monthly electricity fee. “These expenses are hard to manage,” Shobeda says. “I understand the hardships my husband faces while managing the household.”
Salamatullah observed that the situation sometimes triggers marital discord as the male members sometimes express frustration and even contemplate leaving their families. “This is the kind of frustration the families are going through whose members are in the detention center,” he says. “So, we managed to ask every young male laborer in our community to contribute rupees 10 every day. This way, the families whose breadwinners are behind the holding centre will be taken care of to some extent.”
As these Rohingya increasingly become a support system for each other, both emotionally and economically, Salamatullah underscored that they have held meetings with government officials multiple times, but there seems to be no solution. “They should allow our people to be free,” he said. “Not a single local or international NGO has come to our rescue.”
Hate Speeches and Deportation Process
A Rohingya respondent mentioned that hate speeches take a toll on the community’s daily wage work, who try to earn a living in and around Jammu. Earlier, they used to engage in labor, rag picking, and cleaning houses in every district without any hindrance. “But now,” he said, “we have to obtain permission from the authorities first, and this process is time-consuming. Many times, we lose opportunities for work.”
After Narendra Modi came into power in 2014, several anti-Rohingya speeches began to surface across the country. In Jammu, numerous politicians launched campaigns against Rohingya Muslim refugees, labelling them as threats to demography and branding them as terrorists. “Politicians are making hate speeches for their own political benefits,” says Sabber Kyaw Min, Director and Founder of the Rohingya Refugee Initiative. “Being Muslim refugees, we are not even able to reach our community who need us at this difficult time.”
At the beginning of 2017, Jammu witnessed slogans, hoardings, and posters by various politicians against the Rohingya. Slogans like ‘Rohingya, Bangladeshi go back,’ ‘Quit Jammu,’ and ‘Wake up Jammu’ filled the air. The situation escalated in August 2017 when India’s Union Minister of State Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju announced in the Indian Parliament that the government had issued detailed instructions for the deportation of illegal foreign nationals, including Rohingya. “All of this led to the filing of a PIL by Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer in the Supreme Court, to fight against the deportation of Rohingya,” says Sabber.
Finally, in 2021, the Supreme Court of India accepted the government’s arguments that Rohingya posed a threat to national security and refused to halt deportation. According to Sabber, 17 Rohingya have been deported since 2017.
He also pointed out that in Jammu, police verification of Rohingya has been conducted every month for the past few years. ‘Every month, their UNHCR cards are checked, and documents are signed along with photographs,’ Sabber added.
CAA Amendment Bill – Another Roadblock for Rohingya
According to UNHCR, as of August 2023, approximately 47,479 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered, with 30,313 from Myanmar, 13,078 from Afghanistan, and 4,088 from other countries. A 2023 study on Rohingya refugees in India reveals a deterioration in government policies and attitudes towards refugees, especially Rohingya, in recent years. “The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, starting in 2014, has largely played to a nationalist audience, fueling anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiments. This was highlighted in the passage of the Citizen Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA),” the report stated.
In 2019, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government introduced the controversial bill that opens a path to Indian citizenship for illegal immigrants, provided they belong to the Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, and Jain communities and are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. Criticized at a broader level, this bill excludes the Muslim Rohingya refugee community.
The same study noted that lawyers for the Rohingya emphasize the arbitrary and indefinite detention they face, a violation of international law. In several cases, Rohingya detained as “illegal immigrants” have been held beyond their sentences. Indian authorities argue that they are awaiting deportation back to Myanmar, but this raises concerns about violations of international law and internal guidelines.
Illegal Immigrants in absence of Refugee law
With the absence of refugee law and a consistent policy on refugees and asylum-seekers, India faces challenges in providing legal protection. Furthermore, India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and its 1976 protocol, making it difficult for refugees to fall under the purview of India’s Foreigners Act and Passport Act, as these require valid passport and visa documents. However, some refugees, especially Rohingyas, may not have UNHCR cards.“Without these documents, they can be detained and deported and are known as illegal immigrants,” says Ali Johar.
In 2011, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that included provisions for Long Term Visas (LTV) for a maximum period of five years, extendable to a sixth year upon the review of the refugees’ documents by the Home department.
“We had LTVs before, but they are now expired, and we cannot apply for new LTVs after the controversial amendment bill in 2019,” says Sabber. “India has signed international agreements on human rights (1948) and against torture (1997) and has passed domestic laws on the right to life that apply to refugees. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Indian state to prevent violations of international laws,” he adds.
Sabber emphasizes that while India is a democratic country, still, due to political interests in recent years, the narrative towards Muslim Rohingya refugees has witnessed hate and allegations of terrorism. “We are victims of terror in our own country. We have migrated to India to save ourselves.” For Sabber, the Rohingya community stares at a terrible situation with upcoming general elections in India next year.
“We request the Modi government to view us through the humanitarian prism, release the detained and allow us to live peacefully until there is a judgement from the International Court of Justice,” he says. However, for now, the J&K government has set up a high-powered committee to identify foreign nationals overstaying illegally in the union territory since 1 January 2011. The officials said that this will also include the Rohingya refugees living here.