Should India take in more Rohingya refugees?

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 21, 2017 11:44 hrs
A young Rohingya Rohingya Muslim boy waits alongwith others for his turn to collect food aid near Kutupalong refugee camp. Image: AP

A young Rohingya Rohingya Muslim boy waits alongwith others for his turn to collect food aid near Kutupalong refugee camp. Image: AP

The United Nations High Commissions for Refugees states that more than 3 lakh Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar since late August after the latest phase of violence broke out in the country. According to government estimates, 40,000 of those Rohingyas, who fled Myanmar, have entered India illegally.

The Indian government has sent aid to Bangladesh to help with the inflow of refugees. Sikh volunteers arrived at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border last week to begin relief work for Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar. They organized a community kitchen and distributed packed food items and water to the refugees.

The question now arises as to what role if any will India play. Will it take in a certain number of refugees? The central government has planted its flag firmly on where it stands. It even suspended a leader of its Assam state executive committee for voicing support for the way Rohingyas were being treated.

The centre has a 2 fold argument – one is that they pose a security risk to the country for their supposed links to Pakistan based terror outfits and ISIS; their second argument is that allowing them in would change the demographic profile of several states. It began with an August 8 notice sent by the Home Ministry to all states to identify and deport Rohingyas.

On Monday, the government told the Supreme Court that the right to move and settle within India was not available to illegal migrants like the Rohingya. In a 15 page affidavit, the government outlined its basis for how there were links between Rohingya immigrants with Pakistan-based terror organizations and similar organizations operating in other countries.

The Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju was critical of organizations that did not approve of India’s position of not accepting and deporting Rohingya Muslims.

This comes after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, The UN high commissioner for human rights criticized India last week in its handling of the Rohingya refugees saying, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country.”

In a column for the Indian Express, author and professor Deepak K Singh states that India cannot deport refugees who face threats in Myanmar –

Minister of state for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju’s statements that the Indian government will detect and deport the Rohingya back to Myanmar marks a low in India’s otherwise long-recognized impeccable track record in hosting asylum-seekers”.

The choice of the expression — “illegal immigrants” over “refugees” — by Rijiju appears deliberate and also in sync with the BJP’s long-held ideological stance on immigrants: They are illegal immigrants if Muslims and refugees when Hindus”.

There isn’t a comprehensive refugee law yet that has been enacted. Any issue involving refugees has been tackled on a case by case basis. An example is Sri Lankan Tamils who fled to escape persecution by government forces, were classified as camp and non-camp refugees. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced the Asylum Bill, 2015 in the Lok Sabha which would provide a legal framework to deal with refugees. However, the bill hasn’t been taken up for consideration yet.

An NDTV report stated that a number of Rohingyas in Delhi were granted long term visas, some of which were granted under the current government.

With regard to the governments’ claim of Rohingyas posing a national security threat, NDTV in an investigative report found little evidence to back up the claim. While interviewing several local police and law enforcement officials, no criminality was found; Dr SD Singh, Inspector General of Police, Jammu said in part, “They are involved in petty theft like other groups of that social economic situation. But we haven't found anything alarming or their involvement in organized groups”.

However, on Monday, an Al-Qaeda militant named Samiun Rahman, 28, was arrested by the Delhi police after he claimed to be organizing a resistance among Rohingyas to fight the Myanmar Army. His interrogation revealed that during his time in Syria he came to know about the suffering of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. His journey took him to Bangladesh and he used Facebook and other social media to influence people.

Outspoken Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen in interviews said she supported India’s stance on Rohingyas; stating people do not trust Muslims in the current age of Islamic terrorism.

In an op-ed for the Times of India from earlier this month, Kanti Bajpai, an International affairs analyst said India was constrained in dealing with Rohingyas due to International and domestic factors –

Geopolitically, New Delhi knows that Myanmar is playing various powers against each other in order to maintain its room for maneuver India is also in a tight spot diplomatically. The fact is that the violence against Rohingyas surged at a time when India was locked in the Doklam dispute with China”.

There is also a more personal political problem for Modi. The Rohingyas being Muslim makes them toxic for the right wing in India."

In a column for The Hindu, Shiv Visvanathan, a Professor, Jindal Global Law School states that India undermines itself in the handling of the Rohingya refugees –

What India confronts is a case of ethics, a challenge to its understanding of citizenship and freedom. If we abandon the Rohingya, we abandon the idea of India as a home of refugees and hospitality. A country which offered a home to the Parsis, the Tibetans, the Afghans and the Jews cannot turn a little minority of helpless people back”.

In a column for the Washington Post, journalist Barkha Dutt questioned whether India will step up during the crisis –

India is confronted with a piquant question: Why have we been so much kinder to illegal immigrants from other parts of the world? Without hard evidence in the public domain about security risks associated with the Rohingya (and even those should not tarnish an entire ethnic community), we run the risk of being accused of religious discrimination in our refugee policy”.

But our domestic policy on refugees does not have to its tailor itself to expectations of the West or that of the United Nations; we should live up to our own moral standards."

More columns by Varun Sukumar