It was the summer of 1978 when Nizamuddin married Nutan Bahar in their homeland, Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Nizamuddin was in his early 20s. What they planned next was not a honeymoon but something rather more adventurous – they fled their country in a desperate bid to escape communal violence, crossed into Bangladesh and tried to settle down in the fishing port district of Cox’s Bazar.

But their stay in Bangladesh was short. “We were deported within six months,” said Nizamuddin. The sexagenarian with a grey beard and a frail body now lives in a camp for Rohingya refugees in the Madanpur Khurd area of southeast Delhi. Like so many of his neighbours, his journey to the camp was perilous and uncertain.

The Rohingyas are a Bengali-dialect speaking Muslim minority who have for decades been fleeing persecution and a military crackdown in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Often referred to as boat people – because of the perilous voyages they make on packed boats to escape their homeland – they have settled as refugees in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia among other countries. In India, there are Rohingya camps in Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Jammu, which is considered the largest.

But since August 16, the camp in Delhi, which is home to 47 families, has been in a state of anxiety. That’s when news spread of the Indian government’s plan to deport all Rohingya Muslims living in the country. India insisted that the refugee cards issued to Rohingyas by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are irrelevant.

Nizamuddin at his house at the Rohingya camp in Delhi. (Credit: Abhishek Dey)

Refugees in India

A report by news agency Reuters quoted Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju as saying in Parliament last week: “They [UN] are doing it, we can’t stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees. As far as we are concerned they are all illegal immigrants They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is illegal migrant will be deported.”

Similar reports had emerged in April too. One of these earlier reports was attributed to unidentified Home Ministry officials and mentioned a meeting chaired by Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has limited authority in India, according to researchers and human right activists. Its refugee cards grant temporary respite to asylum seekers in India who come from outside the South Asian region but not the right to settle permanently. The agency is reported to have issued refugee cards to 16,500 Rohingyas in India, though the government puts the number at 40,000.

The Centre’s decision to deport Rohingyas is both unprecedented and impractical, according to Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “It is unprecedented because India has never been unwelcoming of refugees, let alone conducting such mass deportation,” she said. “And I would call it impractical because where would they [the Indian government] send these people? They have no passports and the Myanmar government is not going to accept them as legitimate citizens.”

Ganguly added, “India should engage with the Myanmar government and press upon them the necessity of restoring the rights of the Rohingya Muslims so that they do not have to leave the country in the first place.”

Myanmar to Bangladesh to India

At the camp in Delhi, Nizamuddin’s wife Nutan Bahar noted that should the Indian government make good on its action, this will be the third time the couple has been deported. She then quickly disappeared behind the kitchen door, leaving her husband to continue the story of their family’s attempts to flee Myanmar.

As a pressure cooker whistled and the aroma of freshly cooked rice filled the air, he described his life in Myanmar, after they had been deported from Bangladesh. In 1979, back in his village, he ended up being a bonded labourer in the fisheries which his family had once owned. “Wages were uncertain and life was more difficult than what it was when we had fled in the previous year,” he said.

Over the next 10 years, Nutan Bahar gave birth to four children – three daughters and a son, all born in Rakhine.

“On a winter night in 1991, we fled to Bangladesh again,” she said as she fleetingly came out of the kitchen again. “Had we not fled then, we would be dead by now.”

Nizamuddin nodded. This time, their stay in Bangladesh was longer. The family took shelter at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar and Nizamuddin went through a range of jobs – from being a daily wage labourer to working in a garage.

“In 10 years, we were deported again,” he said. By then, they were a family of eight. In Bangladesh, Nutan Bahar had given birth to another son and a daughter.

In 2001, the situation in his homeland deteriorated drastically, according to Nizamuddin. “The only mosque in the village was demolished and what remained of it was sealed by the military,” he said. “They had also issued a diktat. Before every marriage ceremony in the village, the bride had to visit the military bunkers. Even the children in the village could understand what that meant.”

In 2012, Nizamuddin fled the country with his family a third time. This time they did not spend much time in Bangladesh and came to India. In the last five years, he has got all his four daughters married. Two of them live in Delhi, one at the refugee camp in Jammu and the fourth in Bangladesh. His two sons are clerics at a mosque in southeast Delhi’s Kanchan Kunj locality.

The Rohingyas are often called boat people for the perilous voyages they make to escape their homeland. (Credit: Reuters)

No country for boat people

The rights of refugees are a grey area in India. Despite being host a large number of refugees and asylum seekers – they numbered 204,600 in 2011, according to the Central government – the country is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. India ostensibly believes that refugees pose a security threat and could cause demographic imbalances. India does not have a domestic legal framework to extend basic rights to refugees.

“The news about the Rohingya deportation is shocking but certainly not surprising,” said Shreya Sen, executive member of the Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues Network and a doctoral fellow at the University of Calcutta. “It needs to be remembered that international law can be applied in India only if this undergoes a transition into domestic law. This too can happen only if the provisions of international law are not in direct conflict with Indian municipal law.”

She said that domestic legal mechanisms for regulating immigration flow remain absolute and supreme, their authority unquestioned, enabling India to disrespect the principle of non-refoulement. This fundamental principle of international law protects a refugee or asylum seeker from being forced to return to a place where his life is likely to be at risk, and is one of the major elements of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. It is also believed to constitute a rule of customary international law, which refers to international obligations arising from established state practice. For instance, the United Nations Convention against Torture (1984), which India is a signatory to, bans refoulement on grounds of possible torture. But New Delhi has not yet ratified the treaty, which means its provisions are not legally binding.

India could recognise the principle of non-refoulment even if it does not sign or ratify United Nations conventions. But this cannot happen till existing domestic laws such as the Foreigners Act – allowing for the detection, arrest, prosecution and deportation of “illegal immigrants” – are amended. In the absence of a law for refugees, these provisions apply to them by default.

“The current plight of the Rohingyas in India reiterates the urgent need for a uniform domestic framework for refugee protection,” said Shreya Sen. “A national law for refugees is needed if the rights and the dignity of asylum seekers are to be respected. The decision to deport Rohingya refugees by the present Right wing-ruling government also showcases the necessity for increasing the powers and autonomy of the UNHCR in India.”

‘We cannot go back’

At the camp in Delhi, another refugee, Ali Johar, was busy trying to convince the Rohingya families not to be alarmed by the news reports. Johar, who volunteers as a medical community service provider for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, pulled out his phone from his pocket and showed a text message he had received from an official in the refugee agency. It read: “Please inform Rohingya refugees and asylum [seekers] not to worry given the newspaper reports. We are working on it.”

Despite his efforts, the fear and anxiety persisted. In Nizamuddin’s room, dinner was ready and Nutan Bahar stood before her husband. The couple were engrossed in a debate.

“We cannot go back at any cost,” she insisted.

He replied, “I am ready to go back if all our fundamental rights are restored and our properties are returned.”

But there was no convincing Nutan Bahar. “We just cannot go back,” she repeated firmly before returning to the kitchen.