(New York) – The Indian government has deported seven ethnic Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, where they are at grave risk of abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. The Indian foreign ministry said that on October 4, 2018, Indian authorities handed over the men to Myanmar authorities at the border town of Moreh in Manipur State after “reconfirming their willingness to be repatriated.”
Over a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, most since August 2017, to escape the military’s crimes against humanity and what a United Nations fact-finding mission found was possible genocide. The seven Rohingya, who had been detained at the Silchar central prison in Assam state since 2012 on charges of illegal entry, face arbitrary arrest, torture, and possible death in Myanmar. The Indian government’s forced return of Rohingya violates its international legal obligations.
“Forcing any Rohingya back to Myanmar now puts them at grave risk of oppression and abuse,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The Indian government has disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders.”
In August 2017, the Indian government announced plans to deport “illegal foreign nationals,” including an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, at least 16,500 of whom are registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). The government contended that all Rohingya could be subject to deportation, regardless of registration status or international protection standards. Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home affairs, said of the plan: “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.”
Rohingya in India are largely living in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. Since 2016, extremist Hindu groups have targeted Rohingya refugees in Jammu and called for their eviction from the state, with some groups threatening attacks if the government ignored their call. A public anti-Rohingya campaign, claiming that they are “terrorists,” prompted vigilante-style violence, including a reported arson attack by unidentified assailants on five Rohingya houses in April 2017.
The Indian government has framed its approach as a national security issue – a claim that the Supreme Court rejected as a basis for deportations in October 2017. The court stated that the government “must strike a balance between human rights and national security interests.”
However, India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, announced on October 1, 2018, that the government had ordered states to begin collecting Rohingya’s biometric data, after which the government will “initiate action through diplomatic channels with Myanmar and then we will get it resolved.” Singh has said that all Rohingya in India are “illegal immigrants” who will be deported.
A police official in Assam described the deportation of the seven Rohingya as “a routine procedure, we deport all illegal foreigners.” The Indian government, responding to an intervention by human rights lawyers in the Supreme Court seeking to halt the deportation, said that the seven men wanted to return. The Supreme Court denied a request to allow UNHCR access to the men to determine the facts and whether they needed international protection as refugees.
Indian officials reported that Myanmar authorized the return, confirming the men’s identities. The government attorney stated in court that Myanmar had given the men identity certificates, temporary travel documents valid only for a month. These documents did not confirm that the Myanmar government had accepted them as “nationals and citizens,” as the Indian government claimed. Rohingya are not granted citizenship in Myanmar, where they are eligible only for National Verification Cards, identity documents that restrict freedom of movement and have been commonly issued under coercion.
The government told the court that, in addition to the information about these seven men, it had received information from the Assam state government about 12 other people in 2016, but did not disclose any further information on the status of their detention.
India’s assertion that the deportations were “not violating any international law” is inaccurate. While India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is prohibited under customary international law from forcibly returning any refugee to a place where their life or freedom would be at risk. Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture, which India has signed but not yet ratified, prohibits actions to “expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in a danger of being subjected to torture.”
According to the UN, at least 200 Rohingya refugees in India are currently detained on charges of illegal entry. The Indian government should urgently give UNHCR access to all detained migrants to determine their refugee status. The seven Rohingya men deported had been sentenced to three months in prison in 2012, and following that spent six years in detention.
In Myanmar, Rohingya face systematic persecution and violence by the authorities. The seven men deported are reportedly from Kyauktaw township in central Rakhine State, a site of security force violence in October 2012.
For decades, Rohingya have been effectively deprived of nationality in Myanmar, their resulting statelessness enabling security forces to impose long-term, severe restrictions on movement and access to basic services. Since August 2017, more than 728,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh. Myanmar claims it is ready to accept repatriated refugees, but it has shown no willingness to create conditions for safe and dignified returns or address the military violence and persecution that are root causes of the crisis.
In August, Human Rights Watch interviewed six Rohingya refugees, including three boys, who said they were all severely tortured by Myanmar authorities after they returned to Rakhine State from Bangladesh.
In September, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to create an international body to help prepare case files into “the most serious international crimes” in Myanmar since 2011 to facilitate and expedite criminal prosecutions.
The Indian government should not deport any Rohingya to Myanmar until the government can appropriately determine whether the Rohingya are seeking asylum. If so, they have a right to a fair and efficient review of their claim. Those found to be refugees should have access to education, health care, and employment.
Rohingya in India should also have access to a fair procedure to determine whether they face harm on return, as part of any deportation procedure. India should assume that there is grave risk of mistreatment and a need for international protection, including UN monitors on the ground, before Rohingya can return safely to Myanmar.
“The Indian government should immediately abandon plans for deporting Rohingya and instead fairly evaluate their asylum claims,” Ganguly said. “India should join other governments in demanding that Myanmar end atrocities and cooperate with the UN to advance justice for the Rohingya.”