Refugees twice over: Why Rohingya who had found shelter in Jammu are fleeing again
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Executive editor, Kashmir Times/Scroll.In
Facing hostility from Hindutva groups and the Indian government, some of them have been forced to seek the relative safety of Bangladesh.
On January 18, at least 31 Rohingya refugees from Jammu were arrested in the no man’s land between India and Bangladesh by the Border Security Force and handed over to the Tripura police. For four days, they had been trapped between the border fences of the two countries, with neither willing to accept them as refugees.Six years earlier, they had left their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state as the country’s military launched an offensive against Rohingya villages. They had made the long journey from the eastern border to Jammu city, finding work and shelter. Now they were fleeing again, bound for Bangladesh. Threats from the local people and the government’s changing attitude had made Jammu a hostile place, they said.
They were not the first. Aamir Hussain, chairman of the Rohingya Refugee Committee, said of the 1,350 registered Rohingya families four months ago, only around 1,000 were still in Jammu. Last year, some of them shifted to Hyderabad and Kolkata, but many returned, unable to find jobs, Hussain added.
“It is impossible to go back to Rakhine and face the kind of oppression we were facing unless the government in Myanmar is willing to give us our due rights as equal citizens,” he said.
Thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution by the Myanmar military arrived in Jammu from 2007 to 2015. They spread out to 22 locations across the city, including Narwal, Bhatindi, Channi Himmat, Bhagwati Nagar. They have built refugee camps on rented land, crammed with makeshift tenements.
Until some years ago, they thought Jammu was a safe haven. People were friendly, even if the weather was a little harsh. Wages were higher than in other cities. With poor educational qualifications, the best jobs they could get were in the unorganised labour sector, or as petty scrap dealers and ragpickers.
Strangers in the night
The proud owner of a tea stall at the Bhatindi refugee camp was barely nine when he fled his home in Rakhine. “I had to give up my studies after I came and work hard like my father to sustain the family,” he said. “Earlier, I was working for somebody else, now I have my own business. Things are better but there is a nagging sense of fear and uncertainty. How long shall we be able to continue like this? Will we have to flee again?”
This is the only home he knows. Memories of his childhood in Myanmar are shot with panic, filled with images of Rohingya villagers being taken away or interrogated by the military.“We don’t face similar problems here but now…,” he trailed off as another young man from the Bhatindi camp chimed in. “Some people here have started saying that we should be thrown out, that we are involved in bad activities, that we are terrorists,” said the young man, who works as a daily wage labourer.
The fire coincided with anti-Rohingya campaigns led by Hindutva groups. It triggered “sabotage” theories that gained ground after another fire broke out in a Rohingya camp in Bhagwati Nagar.Four months ago, the labourer recalled, mysterious people gathered around their colony. When the Rohingya residents went out to confront them, they found the visitors had left behind a gallon of oil.
Under the saffron banner
Campaigns against Rohingya refugees in Jammu started in 2008, during the Amarnath land agitation. They were revived after 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre and became a coalition partner in the state government. In the last three years, several political groups, media outlets and even the Jammu Chamber of Commerce have openly called for the Rohingya to be driven out.
Propaganda and rumours have fanned xenophobia, with the Rohingya blamed by default for various crimes. Last year, two Rohingya men were arrested on charges of cow slaughter. Hindutva groups defending those accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district began blaming the Rohingya for the crime, even though the refugees are in Jammu city, a good 50 km away. In February 2018, a militant attack on the Sunjuwan Army camp, which lies close to some of the refugee clusters, set off the rumour mills again.
But police officials maintain there are no cases linking Rohingya refugees with terror activities in Jammu.
Lately, the introduction of biometric identification for the Rohingya has triggered fresh anxieties. Giving out personal details in officials forms and biometric data would be a precursor to forced deportation, they fear. In October 2018, Union
The sense of threat was reinforced by the Indian government’s decision to deport seven Rohingya from Assam in October. They had been arrested in 2012 in Silchar on charges of illegal entry. In August 2018, the government announced plans to deport “illegal foreign nationals”, including an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, even those registered with the United Nations refugee agency. The government contended that all Rohingya could be subject to deportation, regardless of their registration status or international norms.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Rohingya refugees in Jammu.