Less than a kilometre from the gates of the world’s largest refugee settlement, in southeast Bangladesh, 101 Hindu Rohingya families wait to be rescued from their status as the “minority” within the world’s most persecuted minority community — the Muslim Rohingyas.
The Hindu Rohingya families — nearly 410 people, most of them children — live in a ‘Hindu Camp’, located just outside Camp 1, the first of 27 refugee settlements that make up the Kutupalong-Balukhali camps, the largest in the world.
Over 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live here after being forced to flee Myanmar following the brutal campaign of violence by the Myanmar army that began on August 26, 2017.
The Hindu Camp stands out from the rest of the sprawling refugee settlement.
It is the only camp with round-the-clock police presence. The women, wearing colourful saris and bangles, and sporting a vermillion sindoor , are visibly different. The camp is built around a small bamboo and tarpaulin temple to Lord Krishna and his consort Radha. The families have been segregated from the main camp, as a measure of “abundant caution”, says Mohammad Reza, in-charge of the oldest refugee camps that came into existence after the first wave of violence against the Rohingyas in 1991-92.
“The Bangladesh government decided to place them outside the main camp because, inside the camps, if something went wrong, we wouldn’t be able to provide them security,” Mr. Reza explained.
Tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have existed for decades. The inflection point came in 1982, when Myanmar passed the controversial Burmese Citizenship Law. It stripped eight ethnicities of citizenship. Even though the Rohingyas were not among them, almost overnight, the community lost its freedom and, over decades, has been violently persecuted.
In the 1991 violence, only six affected families were Hindu, among the 30,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled to the refugee camps. “Those families were integrated with the Rohingya Muslim community. They continue to have good relations but we do not want to take a chance with the refugees who have arrived since August 2017,” said Mr. Reza, explaining that when everyone is fighting for resources — land, food and shelter — tensions can intensify.
The ‘majhi’ or camp leader for the Hindu Rohingya families is 32-year-old Shishu Sheel, who was forced to flee from his home in the Maungtaw district in Rakhine on August 28 last year. “When neighbouring Hindu villages were attacked, my wife, two children and I decided to leave before the army attacked our village. My parents stayed back,” Mr. Sheel says. His entire village, Chikanchari, decided to evacuate after ‘clearance operations’ by the Myanmar army in the neighbouring Hindu village of Fakirabazaar, where 86 persons were allegedly killed.
The Hindu Camp has families belonging to the Pal and Sheel sub-sects, most of them third generation Myanmar citizens. The Myanmar government has given them National Verification Cards (NVC), which gives their ‘Race’ as ‘Indian’. “My grandfather moved to Burma and our family has lived there ever since. But we are considered ‘guests from India’ [in Myanmar] and don’t have citizenship status,” Mr. Sheel said.
Officials in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in Dhaka and Yangon confirmed that their missions were in touch with the group of 101 Hindu families and had recorded their details, but denied that the ID cards, which gave their ‘Race’ as ‘Indian’, meant they were Indian citizens. When asked if India would be asked to accept the families, one senior official said, “It is understood that, in Myanmar, people who don’t originate from there [Myanmar] are identified by their ethnic or national origins. It certainly doesn’t mean that these people [the Hindu Rohingyas] will be deported to India.”
Indian officials maintain that the refugees they met were keen to return to Myanmar and that this had been conveyed to the Myanmar government. “The Government of Myanmar cleared their early repatriation to Myanmar and sent the necessary documents to the Bangladesh government. We have been told that they [Bangladesh] have not yet worked their way around to facilitating the repatriation,” the official, who did not wish to be identified, said. In December 2017, Myanmar’s Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye had visited the families, promising refugees will be allowed back across the border to Myanmar on January 22 as the first step in the repatriation process. This has not happened.
UN aid workers, however, disputed the contention that the Hindu Rohingya refugees were ready to return to Myanmar, given the conditions there. “Indian diplomats may have met with the leaders of the group and had that impression, but the bulk of the refugees are just too scared to go back to Rakhine,” one refugee coordinator said.
When asked about the choices facing his community, Mr. Sheel says no one could guarantee their security if they returned to Myanmar, so they want to go to India, “ khushi se ” (happily). “We want to go to India, if the Indian government will take us. We have repeatedly said that and we have never heard back from the Indian government on it,” adds Mr. Sheel.
Meanwhile, with restrictions on movement and limited integration within the camps, the refugee Hindu families are aware that repatriation, not settling long-term, is the aim. They continue to wait, starkly aware that they are the least wanted among the most unwanted people in the world.
( Inputs fromSuhasini Haider )