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Rohingyas in National Capital Between Devil and Deep Blue sea

Ritwika Mitra |
The anti-Rohingya sentiment has increased after the Jahangirpuri demolition drive.
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At the Rohingya settlement in Shram Vihar

New Delhi: Miza dreamed of becoming a doctor way back in 2012. Ten years after fleeing Myanmar along with her parents, the Rohingya refugee asks almost rhetorically who is accountable 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 lagging. Look at my age. What is the point of studying? What are my career options as a Rohingya girl?” she asks expressing frustration at the Kanchan Kunj settlement for Rohingya refugees. “I find it difficult to sleep at night fearing the uncertainty that lies ahead.”

The Rohingyas, who are among the most persecuted minorities in the world, have been fleeing Myanmar for years to escape the ongoing genocide. The largest exodus occurred 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 till November last year—in Hyderabad, Jammu and New Delhi. According to a press release issued by the Human Rights Watch on March 31, the Rohingyas in India face “tightened restrictions, arbitrary detention, violent attacks often incited by political leaders, and a heightened risk of forced returns”.

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At the Rohingya camp in Kanchan Kunj

Several members of the community in the national capital feel that the anti-Rohingya sentiment has increased after the Jahangirpuri demolition drive. In April, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that the demolition drive was against ‘illegal Rohingyas and Bangladeshis’, following which the political tussle between the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) increased in Delhi. Soon, the Rohingyas were again in the news.

Miza’s mother Tasleema and father try to stay away from news “as much as possible”. “How will we go on with our lives? I feel tense. My husband tells me to not pay attention to the news. We try to provide food and education to our four children. I am praying to Allah that good things happen,” says Tasleema, who has four school-going children.

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

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

Delhi houses Rohingya families across four primary locations—Kanchan Kunj, Shram Vihar, Khajuri Khas and Vikaspuri. “There are no Rohingyas in Jahangirpuri but we still were in news,” Ullah adds.

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

At Shram Vihar, where there are around 100 Rohingya families, at least, 10 of them are being pressured by their landlords to evict the houses.

At the Rohingya camp in Kanchan Kunj

At the Rohingya camp in Kanchan Kunj

The house owner asked us to vacate because he has heard that these settlements will be done away with in the coming days. I have three kids aged nine, six and three. Where will we go? This is happening to us only because we are Rohingyas,” says Rohima, whose husband has received repeated reminders from her landlord to vacate the accommodation.

Rohima’s husband earns around Rs 10,000 by driving an e-rickshaw. “We do not always have money to even buy food. When the children fall sick, we borrow money from our neighbours to buy medicines,” she says. 

Kunsuma, her husband and their son rely on monthly financial aid from the UNHCR to survive. The couple suffers from severe health problems and has no means of livelihood. Their homeowner was kind enough to waive off the rent “but after the controversy over the Rohingyas, we too have been asked to vacate the house”. “We only had to pay the electricity bill. My husband, son and I barely get by. How will we manage the expenses anywhere else?” a worried Kunsuma asks.   

Nurul Amin, who identifies himself as a community leader, says that “despite having UNHCR refugee cards and completed police verification”, the Rohingyas are facing challenges in staying in rented accommodations with an uncertain fate.  

Fazal Abdali, a lawyer who has worked with the community for years, explains the circumstances in which house owners wish to avoid trouble, controversy and association with the Rohingyas. “I believe that everything happening currently is interconnected. For instance, the Aam Aadmi Party attributed the violence at Jahangirpuri to Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, and they were immediately back in news.”

The Rohingyas are being “used as a tool in the political rivalry, leading to their exploitation as locals do not want to go into problems because of them”, Abdali added.

Fazal explains that some of the properties in these settlements 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 the Rohingyas with the properties will be troublesome and bring the administration’s undue attention,” he says.

The fears among Rohingyas have intensified after a woman Hasina Begum was deported from Jammu to Myanmar despite holding a valid refugee status in March. She was later reunited with her family in Bangladesh.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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