(New York) – The Indian government should not forcibly return ethnic Rohingya refugees to Burma, where they face persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. India should abide by its international legal obligations and protect the Rohingya – a Muslim minority predominately from western Burma – from systematic abuse by Burmese officials and state security forces.
On August 9, 2017, the Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told the parliament that “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas,” noting that there were around “40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country.”
“India has a long record of helping vulnerable populations fleeing from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans, and Tibetans,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.”
About 16,500 Rohingya living in India are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The government contends that tens of thousands are unregistered. Minister Rijiju told Reuters news agency, “They [UNHCR] are doing it, we can't stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees.” He added: “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.”
Rijiju’s statement does not accurately reflect India’s obligations under international refugee law. While India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by customary international law not to forcibly return any refugee to a place where they face a serious risk of persecution or threats to their life or freedom.
The Rohingya are largely living in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. Since 2016, Rohingya refugees in Jammu have been targeted by right-wing Hindu groups who have been calling for their eviction from the state, with some groups even threatening attacks if the government rejected their call.
In December 2016, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), demanded the eviction of Rohingya from Jammu, calling them a threat to security. Another group, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, started a public campaign against the Rohingya, putting up billboards in the city calling on Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave the state. In February 2017, a BJP member whose lawyer is the BJP spokesman in Jammu, filed a petition in the state high court seeking the Rohingya’s deportation, arguing that there had been a sharp increase in illegal migrants from Burma and Bangladesh.
The campaign by Hindu groups against the Rohingya in Jammu has prompted vigilante-style attacks against them. In April, unidentified assailants reportedly set on fire five huts housing Rohingya in Jammu. Four days earlier several Rohingya families living in the outskirts of Jammu alleged that unidentified people beat them up and set ablaze the scrap they collected to earn a livelihood.
Xenophobic statements by government officials about Rohingya could fuel further violence against them and Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the rampant and systemic violations against the ethnic Rohingya in Burma. The estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, most of whom live in Burma’s Rakhine State, have long been targets of government discrimination, facilitated by their effective denial of citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya have faced longstanding rights abuses, including restrictions on movement, limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced labor.
An estimated 120,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, are currently displaced in camps in Rakhine State as a result of violence in 2012 that amounted to crimes against humanity and “ethnic cleansing.” The displaced Rohingya live in squalid, prison-like conditions in these camps. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are living in Bangladesh, where the vast majority have also been prevented from filing refugee claims. The Burmese government refuses to use the term “Rohingya,” with which the group self-identifies, but often uses the pejorative term “Bengali,” implying illegal migrant status in Burma.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses associated with recent military operations following attacks by alleged Rohingya militants in October 2016 in Rakhine State, including widespread arson, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape, and other forms of sexual violence. The United Nations estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed in the crackdown. A February report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to “crimes against humanity.”
In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of recent human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. The government has stated its intention to deny the mission access to the country.
Due to Burma’s discriminatory citizenship policies, it refuses to cooperate in the repatriation of Rohingya, itself a denial of the human right of any person to return to their country.
India has in the past called upon Burma to address the issues around the Rohingya and to ensure their protection. Minister Rijiju has stated that deportations will occur only in consultation with the authorities in Bangladesh and Burma.
“Without the willingness or capacity to evaluate refugee claims, the Indian government should put an end to any plans to deport the Rohingya, and instead register them so that they can get an education and health care and find work,” Ganguly said. “Most of the Rohingya were forced to flee egregious abuse, and India should show leadership by protecting the beleaguered community and calling on the Burmese government to end the repression and atrocities causing these people to leave.”