By Rohini Mitra and Samanwita Paul | Issue 23
In the early hours of 24 July 2023 government authorities from India’s Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested 74 Rohingya refugees from the camp settlement of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, on charges of illegal entry. Those arrested were mainly men, UNHCR refugee card holders, and settled in the area with their families peacefully for over a decade. Few days prior to this, a clash between a group of detained Rohingya in the northern state of Jammu with the police authorities of the detention centre led to tear gassing and the death of a Rohingya infant, whose parents were brought to the last rites in handcuffs. These incidents marked a sudden escalation in the prevalent status quo of Rohingya refugees in India and have instilled an atmosphere of fear for the remaining refugees living in the country. Despite an initial acceptance and tolerance, over the past few years, Rohingya refugees in India have faced increasing instances of mass detention, accompanied with numerous government statements and media reportage of their “illegality”. In this piece, we explore the latest phase of India’s approach to the Rohingya, arguing that the Rohingya in India currently face a triple marginalisation. Firstly, this results from their conflation within an existing narrative around Bangladeshi illegal immigration into India, which is deeply politicised and polarising, especially during elections. Secondly, this is part of a larger environment of growing Islamophobia which also implicates the Rohingya, as Muslim refugees in India. At the same time, the Rohingyas’ status as UNHCR card holders in a non-signatory country means that while they are easily identified, the card does not necessarily always guarantee protection from detention and deportation.
Rohingya reception in India over the years
Scholars have argued that Rohingya reception in India is characterised by three phases. Refugees had been migrating to India in small numbers over the past three decades and largely settled across the states of Delhi, Jammu, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Telangana. Although their total population numbers have remained low, most scholars cite a range between 20-40000, based on data from the UNHCR as well as the Government of India. The first phase (2012-17) involved a conditional acceptance, tolerance of UNHCR registration, and granting of Indian long-term visas, which were crucial for accessing identification documents and essential healthcare, financial and rental services. The second and third phases, post-2017, are characterised, on the one hand, by an illegalisation of the Rohingya population in India, and, on the other, by India attempting to take on a role of leadership in the regional Rohingya refugee crisis. In August 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a directive to deport all Rohingyas on the basis of the Foreigners Act of 1946, labelling them illegal immigrants. Earlier in 2017, a local agitation had taken place in Jammu, then host to the largest Rohingya population in India. Billboards were raised across Jammu urging the local residents to save their history, culture, and identity by ensuring that illegal Bangladeshis and Rohingya quit Jammu. Subsequently, in 2018, India deported seven Rohingya refugees from the border region of Assam, marking the first such instance and issued orders to collect biometric information of refugees in India.
An Emerging fourth phase: Triple marginalisation of Rohingya refugees in India
Post 2021, policy towards Rohingya refugees has entered a fourth phase signalling a sharp change in the status quo of previous years. This phase began with the mass detention of UNHCR-registered refugees in Jammu in March 2021. Over the next few months, several instances of detention took place across India with 261 detained from Jammu, 93 from Delhi, 21 from Uttar Pradesh, 14 from Telangana and a dozen more from the bordering states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Manipur and others. In March 2022, a UNHCR registered refugee, Hasina Begum, was deported to Myanmar. The mass detentions of July 2023 are the latest in these instances of escalation against the Rohingya. This emerging phase is characterised by exacerbated vulnerabilities on three separate fronts.
Firstly, one of the primary reasons for increased hostility against the Rohingyas is the continuous (and at times deliberate) conflation with Bangladeshi immigrants. Fluid borders with Bangladesh and its long history of mobility make it difficult to determine the origins of various immigrant groups entering India. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ 2017 order on illegal immigration into India flags the physical and cultural similarities that many immigrants share with Indians as a potential risk. It also plays into the rhetoric of India’s current ruling dispensation whose election manifestos prominently include illegal immigration and politicising narratives concerning internal security. Such narratives feed fear regarding unchecked Bangladeshi immigration, sometimes even against refugee groups such as the Rohingya refugees.
Secondly, the precarious situation with respect to the UNHCR registration cards has created additional vulnerabilities. The Indian government is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, although it works in collaboration with the UNHCR to determine protection and asylum needs of the various refugee groups. While the Indian government does not collaborate with the UNHCR on issuing these cards, scholars argue that notable concerns regarding potential information-sharing between the UNHCR and the Indian government remain. This is particularly alarming with the recent shift of policy towards Rohingya refugees and the increasing instances of arbitrary detention. As scholars argue, the registration card can serve at best, to limit punitive action with no guaranteed protection from possible arrests and detention.
Finally, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed increased targeting of the refugees as carriers and disseminators of the virus. Terms such as “Corona Bomb” swayed public sentiment considerably. The next three years witnessed numerous instances of settlement demolition across Northern India especially in Muslim-majority areas. Shanties and colonies typically inhabited by Indian Muslims were represented as “illegal Rohingya settlements” thereby leading to increased media visibility and surveillance, while opposition political parties made statements about how illegal settlement of the Rohingya contributes to communal violence in India. Live broadcasts of police raids used terms such as ghuspetia (intruder) Muslims which served to not only justify police action but also give rise to public apathy against the Rohingyas.
Despite being categorised as “irregular or illegal immigrants”, the Indian government continues to allow Rohingya refugees to register with the UNHCR. This shows that there is little room to deny their refugee status, internationally, although India continues to fall back on the country’s non-accession to the Convention. However, lack of socio-legal protections, conflation with illegal Bangladeshi immigration and hyper-nationalist agendas targeted against their identity as Muslim refugees have placed them in a very different position compared to the other refugee groups in India. Increased visibility and hostility have led to increasing protection failures. Additionally, refugees not only struggle to find safe and reliable sources of employment but also have limited to no options in terms of housing and living arrangements. Irregular work, which is unskilled, underpaid and highly exploitative tends to be the only option. The lack of legal IDs and increased suspicion around the community limit their options with regards to renting homes, forcing many to continue living in easily identifiable and contested camp spaces. This indicates that at present there is a complete absence of opportunities for Rohingyas to regularise their legal status within India and therefore their marginalisation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
Samanwita Paul is a Doctoral Student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research focus is on the Displacement and Politics of Representation of the Rohingya women refugees in India. Her research interests include Feminist Studies, Political Geography and Refugee Studies. Prior to this she obtained her M.A and M.Phil. in Geography from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. For her M.Phil. she wrote a minor thesis on the dialectics of recognition and redistribution affecting women’s political participation in grassroots democracy in India. She has worked extensively on issues pertaining to forced migrants in various refugee focused and refugee-led organisations. She has been a part of several teams for field research and policy formulation pertaining to refugee groups.
Rohini Mitra is a doctoral student at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, where her research is focused on forced migration governance, networks, and refugee transnationalism in and beyond South Asia. Her doctoral research examines these themes in the context of the Rohingya refugees in India. Her larger research interests include migrant (and refugee) transnationalism, migration governance regimes, diaspora politics, and the lived experiences of migration. She has completed a Masters in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and worked in the migration policy and research space in India.