Rohingyas in the nation’s capital between the devil and the deep blue sea

New Delhi: Miza dreamed of becoming a doctor in 2012. Ten years after fleeing Myanmar with her parents, the Rohingya refugee asks almost rhetorically who is responsible for her ruined dream?

Now 20 and preparing for Board exams, Miza feels embarrassed to mention her class after losing several academic years. ” I am late. Look at my age. What is the point of studying? What are my career options as a Rohingya girl? she asks, expressing her frustration with the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya refugee camp. “I find it difficult to sleep at night, fearing the uncertainty ahead of us.”

The Rohingya, who are among the most persecuted minorities in the world, have been fleeing Myanmar for years to escape the ongoing genocide. The biggest exodus happened in 2017 with a large number of them settling in Bangladesh.

More than 18,000 refugees were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India up to November last year, in Hyderabad, Jammu and New Delhi. According to a Press release published by Human Rights Watch on March 31, the Rohingyas in India face “increased restrictions, arbitrary detentions, violent attacks often instigated by political leaders and an increased risk of forced returns”.

At the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya camp

Several community members in the nation’s capital believe anti-Rohingya sentiment has increased after the Jahangirpuri demolition campaign. In April, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that the demolition campaign was targeting “illegal Rohingyas and Bangladeshis”, following which the political struggle between the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has increased in Delhi. Soon, the Rohingyas were in the headlines again.

Miza’s mother Tasleema and father try to stay out of the news “as much as possible”. “How are we going to continue our life? I feel tense. My husband tells me not to pay attention to the news. We try to provide food and education for our four children. I pray to Allah for good things to happen,” says Tasleema, who has four school-going children.

Her husband works as a plumber and is the only earning member of the family. “We are afraid of hearsay about what the fate of the Rohingyas would be. Whatever money comes in, we spend it on our children’s education. We can’t give our children anything else,” she added.

Doctor Salim Ullah, who identifies as a community leader, says media portrayal of the Rohingya as a “threat to the nation” has played a major role in damaging their reputation. “We came to India to save our lives. Most Rohingya here work as labourers. We just manage to get by. How can we be a threat to a nation’s security?

Delhi is home to Rohingya families in four main locations: Kanchan Kunj, Shram Vihar, Khajuri Khas and Vikaspuri. “There are no Rohingyas in Jahangirpuri but we were always in the news,” Ullah adds.

Lawyer Sadiq Noor says that “the biggest challenge is the absence of any refugee law in the Constitution. Therefore, getting help from authorities or law enforcement becomes difficult.” “It takes a lot of advocacy and effort to put things in place for refugees. It took decades of advocacy and dealing with authorities to make them understand. Our courts have played a vital role in protecting refugees and their rights over the years,” he adds.

In Shram Vihar, where there are around 100 Rohingya families, at least 10 of them face pressure from their landlords to evict the houses.

At the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya camp

The owner of the house asked us to leave because he heard that these colonies will be removed in the next few days. I have three children aged nine, six and three. Where will we go? It only happens to us because we are Rohingya,” says Rohima, whose husband has received repeated reminders from his landlord to leave the accommodation.

Rohima’s husband earns around Rs 10,000 driving an e-rickshaw. “We don’t always have the money to buy food. When children get sick, we borrow money from our neighbors to buy medicine,” she says.

Kunsuma, her husband and their son depend on monthly cash assistance from UNHCR to survive. The couple suffer from serious health problems and have no means of support. Their landlord was kind enough to waive the rent “but after the Rohingya controversy, we were also asked to leave the house.” “We only had to pay the electricity bill. My husband, son and I are barely getting by. How are we going to manage spending elsewhere? asks a worried Kunsuma.

Nurul Amin, who identifies as a community leader, says that “despite having UNHCR refugee cards and police verification”, Rohingyas are struggling to stay in rented accommodation with an uncertain fate.

Fazal Abdali, a lawyer who has worked with the community for years, explains the circumstances in which homeowners wish to avoid trouble, controversy and association with the Rohingya. “I believe that everything that is happening now is interconnected. For example, the Aam Aadmi party blamed the violence in Jahangirpuri on Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, and they immediately returned to the news.

The Rohingya are “used as a tool in political rivalry, leading to their exploitation as the locals don’t want to get into trouble because of them”, Abdali added.

Fazal explains that some of the properties of these colonies are not registered. “Instead, they have the power of attorney from one owner to another, and the construction of these properties is irregular. Therefore, associating Rohingyas with properties will be embarrassing and attract undue attention from the administration,” he says.

Fears among the Rohingya have intensified after a woman, Hasina Begum, was deported from Jammu to Myanmar despite holding valid refugee status in March. She was then reunited with her family in Bangladesh.

The author is a freelance journalist.