A day after reports indicated that the Indian government plans to identify, arrest and deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, members of the community and human rights organisations on Wednesday strongly condemned the plan as a clear violation of international law.

A small ethnic minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Rohingyas have been facing several years of violent persecution at the hands of the Myanmar government, military and Buddhist nationalists. Lakhs of Rohingyas have fled their home country in the past five years, seeking safety in neighbouring countries. According to Indian home ministry estimates, there are around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living as undocumented refugees in various parts of India, of whom more than 10,000 are said to be in Jammu.

India, however, has not officially recognised Rohingya Muslims as refugees. On April 3, Union home ministry officials reportedly held a meeting to discuss the Centre’s plans to identify “illegal” Rohingya settlers, for possible arrest and deportation under the Foreigners Act.

This, according to human rights body Amnesty, would be a blatant “violation of India’s commitments under international law” since it would amount to sending the Rohingya community back to a place where they have faced horrific abuses.

Amnesty also called upon India to sign and ratify the international Refugee Convention of 1951, as well as the 1967 Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees. India is one of the few democracies that has not ratified the Refugee Convention, which governs how distressed refugees are treated in nations where they seek asylum.

Breaking international law

In a statement released on Wednesday, Amnesty International India said: “Forcing Rohingya asylum-seekers and refugees back to Myanmar would violate the international principle of non-refoulement – which is recognised in customary international law and is binding on India – that forbids states from forcibly returning people to a country where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that India should actually be considering the best ways to assist refugees and help the government of Myanmar resolve the long-standing issue of Rohingyas, so that people are not forced to flee. “It will be surprising if India decides to deport Rohingya refugees considering that the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, has recently called for an investigation into the serious and ongoing violations against the Rohingya community by the Myanmar army,” she said.

Meanwhile in Jammu and Kashmir, where a large number of Rohingya refugees live, human rights activist Khurram Parvez pointed out that India has been granting citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan for several years. “Is India only going to welcome Hindus who are persecuted, but not others?” said Parvez, the programme coordinator of the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society.

‘It is hell in Myanmar’

While the Rohingya claim that they are indigenous to the Rakhine region of western Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), the Myanmar government has, for more than a century, considered them to be refugees from the Bangladesh region. The Rohingyas have consequently been denied Myanmar citizenship and the human rights violations inflicted on the community have led international organisations to describe them as the most persecuted community in the world.

Independent reports by international organisations like the United Nations, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others have found that the Myanmar army has engaged in murder, rape, child killings, arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances of Rohingyas as well as burnt down entire Rohingya villages.

Since 2012, widespread violence by Buddhist nationalists displaced lakhs of Rohingyas from their homes. Many were imprisoned in state internment camps and in 2015, a wave of desperate mass migrations of by sea brought international attention to the Rohingyas, who came to be known as the “boat people”.

“Deporting us back to Myanmar would be like pushing us into the mouth of a shark,” said Ali Johar, 22, a Rohingya student who lives in Delhi and volunteers as a translator for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In 2012, Johar fled from Myanmar to India with his immediate family after his father had been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and jailed for seven years. “There was no trial, no justice. In Myanmar, if you are Rohingya,” he said. “You are not seen as a human – just as a property of the military. It is hell there.”

Johar claims that being able to live in India – and acquiring a refugee status from the United Nations, if not the Indian government – has at least allowed him and his family to breathe. “But just because we are Muslim, the Indian media often says we are ‘prone to get radicalised’,” he said. “It is disgusting.”

India should provide for Rohingyas

Ohmar Lynn, another Rohingya living in Delhi, moved to India with her three daughters in 2013, a year after her husband fled from impeding persecution in Myanmar.

“Our situation in India is not great – our salaries are low, rents are high and it is not always safe. But Myanmar is much worse right now,” said Lynn, who worked as a medical counsellor with Doctors Without Borders back in Myanmar, and has now been given a similar job at the United Nations in India. Lynn’s relatives in Myanmar are currently being denied all healthcare and schooling facilities. “If we are sent back there, we would have no house, no job guarantee and the government could jail us, kill us, or do anything to us.”

However, Khurram Parvez points out that the situation is only marginally better for many Rohingyas struggling to survive in India without any documentation or protection. “I met a Rohingya man in a Jammu jail last year, who was acquitted in a rape case but has not yet been released. The government has now booked him under the state’s Public Safety Act,” said Parvez. There are probably thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are currently stuck in Indian jails and when the Indian government alerts the Myanmar embassy about them, it never receives a response.

Ganguly believes it is time for India to actively provide for Rohingya refugees while assuring that the grievances of the local host communities are promptly addressed. “India has a long history of providing sanctuary to persecuted people, ranging from the Parsis many centuries ago to Tibetans, Sri Lankans and Afghans more recently,” said Ganguly. “It will be a shame if that changes just as the world is expecting India to adopt a global leadership role in addressing the most pressing problems that cause human suffering.”