The Bodh Gaya blasts have brought the Rohingya issue back to headlines. But the hapless condition of the refugees has remained largely away from the public eye, writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty after visiting a camp in Delhi
Mohammad Younus is 40. Father of six children aged between 14 and one. Today is a day of big hope for him. He has plans to reach the UNHCR office in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, early and find out if he has become “lucky.”
“If I am lucky, UNHCR might issue me a refugee card today, I have been waiting for it for over a year now,” says Younus, all perked up. Last time he went there, he was asked to return after six months. “I couldn’t hold my frustrations anymore, waited the whole day to meet a senior official to plead my case, he finally asked me to come on July 18 to collect my card,” says Younus.
A resident of Maungdaw district of Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) State for three generations, Younus and his family of seven fled the country two years ago “unable to suffer persecution anymore” and landed up in Delhi. For nearly a year now, they have been living in a refugee camp in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar on a vacant plot off river Yamuna. Like many of the 54 families living in plastic sheet covered poky hole of a damp room in the camp, Younus is hopeful the card will cement his status as a Rohingya refugee in India, and may enable him to get a job to sustain his family plus receive a dole of Rs.1000 per month through partner NGOs of the UN body.
Asking him to “keep hope” is 65-year-old Iman Hussain, a camp inmate, and a “lucky” one — holder of an UNHCR refugee card for a year now. “I was in Jammu for two years but had to shift to Delhi to pursue my case at the UNHCR,” says Hussain, who pins down his skill as “kheti-bari” (farming) but is a daily wage earner now at a construction site in South Delhi. “My land in Arakan was seized by the Government. Thereafter, I had to take land from it on lease for farming. Since the charges are very high, I lost my livelihood, had to leave. The construction work is back breaking but I have no option. My wife is not finding work because she only speaks the Rohingya language,” he adds.
Joining the conversation is Omar Hamza (28), who fled Arakan four years ago leaving behind his mother. He quickly flaunts his asylum seeker card issued by UNHCR, states his hope of receiving a refugee card soon. Also details the escape route he took to India, usually taken by Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar. “My mother wants to join me; I don’t know whether she will be able to make it. There is a sea (Bay of Bengal) between Myanmar and Bangladesh through which Rohingyas enter Bangladesh in boats. Since we have no visas, we have to be very careful. Many die in the sea in the process; many get caught and are dumped in jails. After reaching Bangladesh, they cross into West Bengal and come to Delhi,” he explains.
Younus has his reasons for choosing India. “My sister has been staying in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, it is tough there. Also, many Rohingyas are languishing in their jails for years now. Though it is a Muslim country, it has not treated Rohingyas any better. I have always heard that Muslims in Hindustan live a much better life, so my natural choice was this country.” Omar though has a different take. He feels UNHCR has not done much for Rohingya refugees in India. “In Bangladesh, it has set up schools and living quarters for them. Thanks to the schools, the children of the refugees can today communicate in English and definitely have a better future. Look at us, when UNHCR asked us to fill forms to seek asylum, none of us knew how to write.” Education beyond Class 10, they say, is barred for Rohingyas in Myanmar. “Even that is difficult there as children are often given duty in local police stations. I studied till Class 2. After I was taken by the police to work in the thana for a week, my parents stopped me from going to school,” says Younus.
What brings tears to his eyes is the thought that even his next generation will be no better. He points at his 14-year-old son, standing nearby with a vacant expression, saying, “He has never gone to school. In fact, none of the 30-35 children in this camp have seen a school. My son is becoming a rag-picker. What future do they have?” Two women from an NGO came to teach the children some time ago. “I was thrilled but they stopped coming,” he says. With nothing to do, their children loiter around the area; some have become victims of snake bites. “A child died last week,” he adds.
Omar says, “Our stories are never-ending. The problem is, we have very few listeners. Look at 50-year-old Dolo, she is a widow living in the camp, sells vegetables, is ever worried about her relatives at Arakan. The cell phone that they used to contact her has been seized by the police.”
Younus, Omar and others came to the camp last year after Delhi Police evicted them from Vasant Vihar where they were on protest in front of the UNHCR office seeking asylum. Zakat Foundation let 52 families create a camp on their land allocated for an orphanage. A.M. Amanullah, who has compiled a status report of the refugees in the camp for the Foundation a month ago, counts the number of people at 195. Omar though adds, “Three more families have joined us.”
A walk through the fly-infested camp displays to you their hapless living conditions. The rains have made it worse. Next to the toilets — two for a population of 200, is a water tap. Looking at a pack of kids frolicking in water gushing out of the tap makes you wonder how long their happiness shall last. What 23-year-old refugee Robi Alam says doesn’t make you any hopeful. “After the Bodh Gaya blasts, Police and Media visited us, asked questions. This kind of news will further dash our hope for a future.”
(According to UNHCR, New Delhi, 4,200 Rohingyas are registered with it. Till last month, 1800 of them have been granted refugee status and issued refugee ID cards.)