“Salaam Aleikum.” Peace be unto you. It’s the universal greeting of Islam, and is how Mohammad Rafeeq introduced himself, at the Balapur refugee camp where he and nearly 3,000 other Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have settled on Hyderabad’s outskirts.
Mohammad lost everything in Myanmar – his home, his vehicle, and his family. His mother, father and sister were killed by the militia, who threw his three-year-old son into a fire. He works as a daily labourer to make a living, even as he struggles to perform Namaaz with a fractured leg. Despite all this, he begins his story by thanking the government of India for allowing him a place to stay. The government gives them nothing besides the land they stay on, but he is grateful nonetheless.
His only request? A sewing machine, so the women of the camp can work from their homes.
Mohammad, along with nearly one million Rohingya Muslims, fled his country’s military junta to become a stateless refugee. The Rakhine state where they once called home, is located on Myanmar’s Western coast, and is where the vast majority of the country’s minority Muslim population reside. The military and its supporters decry them as illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and since 2012, have been forcing them to flee.
They have since become the world’s most stateless people. Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens, nor does Bangladesh. In India, they are refugees in a country without dedicated refugee legislation (India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention). Despite this, they’ve managed to make their home in places like Hyderabad.
Musheed Alam speaks Hindi, and runs his own business selling a delicacy made of dried fish. Six years ago, he trekked through forests and mountains to reach Calcutta. There, he was advised to settle in Hyderabad, where the presence of an established Muslim community was seen a factor that would help the refugees settle. He managed to make it home, and has two kids who he sends to private school. “Now, I’m happy. The Muslim communities here helped us a lot, and gave us rice, clothes, dishes and utensils.”
For people like Mohammad, getting out of Myanmar, and living with the horrors they saw was the biggest challenge. He narrates what happened to 12-year-old Sommaiya, who was slashed by “the Buddhists” near her ribs. She has difficulty supporting herself, and doesn’t utter a word anymore.
For the women of the camp, life is largely spent within its boundaries, as they find it difficult to get employment outside without speaking the local languages. Their men don’t want them to leave either – fearing their children will miss them too much.
A state of statelessnessWith no national refugee policy, India’s illegal immigrants are permitted a spot in the country provided they have a visa and a refugee card. Many just have the latter – and the United Nations Humans Rights Commissions helps by handing out their own identity cards. But India’s fluidic implementation of laws allows refugees to manage life without identification documents. Their employers provide them with sim cards, and some even own and drive their vehicles (occasionally getting caught, paying a fine and driving on). The open nature of the informal sector means employment is never too far away. The presence of charitable organizations, communities and NGOs is also a huge factor in their lives – Balapur’s residents survived without government help thanks largely to the donations of charitable organizations.
India is often derided for placing refugees under legal limbo. If the direction of the pending bills in its possession say anything, it’s that some refugees are more welcome than others. Under the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan will have a faster shot at getting citizenship in India – as long as they’re not Muslim. If it’s passed, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian illegal migrants will be permitted citizenship rights six years before Muslim migrants.
For the Rohingyas, it’s doubly stinging – one because they’re not even in the list of countries (forced out of Myanmar for being Bangladeshi, and refused entry by Bangladesh for not being so) – and two because their religious identity prevents them from enjoying easier citizenship.
The sanctuary stateA history of migration is inextricable from India’s past. India has always been a dome for the stateless. The Qutb Minar, once a towering monument, comforted immigrants, and refugees who arrived on India’s shores. Within the Qutb complex, a mosque was called the ‘Qubbat al-Islam’, meaning the ‘Sanctuary of Islam’, and attracted those who fled Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes from Central to West Asia. Among these refugees was the father of Amir Khusrau; Amir who would go on to lay the foundation for modern Hindustani – the languages of Hindi and Urdu that more than 420 million speak today.
With under 200,000 refugees today, India is the world’s 25th largest destination for refugees. But taking the twentieth century as a whole, India has been one of the largest host nations to refugees, accepting millions who fled violence and persecution, during Partition and the 1971 war with Pakistan, as well as from Tibet and Sri Lanka.
Accepting people from all over the world made India the second most popular migrant destination in the world, between 1960 and 1980 . In almost every city, one can find migrants, immigrants, and refugees – from England, Portugal, France, Netherlands, Iran, Tibet, and Myanmar.
In Hyderabad, the Iranians came in the early twentieth century, the Tibetans in the 1950’s and those from Myanmar in the last five years. The Iranians were imbibed into the population, intermarrying and becoming the ‘Irani’ demographic; the Tibetans faced years of hardship and struggle before being accepted and formalized through access to identity cards and voting rights.
For the Rohingyas, India would be a home with all the difficulties that come with living in the subcontinent. They compete for jobs with the 500-million-strong Indian workforce – and life is anything but easy for the world’s most persecuted minority. But for some, it’s still a home.
[UPDATE] After years of limbo, India now shows no sign of allowing the Rohingya people to stay. Soon, all 40,000 will face the threat of deportation, unless the Supreme Court can intervene.
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