Rohingya refugees in arbitrary detention, denied exit permissions by India: Report

Downgrading of UNHCR card combined with denial of Aadhaar has left Rohingyas without access to healthcare, education, livelihood opportunities 

May 18, 2023 10:30 pm | Updated May 19, 2023 09:53 am IST - New Delhi

The Rohingya colony near Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi in 2022.

The Rohingya colony near Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi in 2022. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

India is not allowing exit permissions for Rohingya refugees who have completed refugee status determinations with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and “gained approval from third countries for resettlement,” says a new report titled ‘A Shadow of Refuge: Rohingya Refugees in India’. The report, jointly prepared by The Azadi Project, a women’s rights non-profit and Refugees International, an international NGO that advocates for the rights of stateless people, was released in New Delhi on May 18.

The report notes that “instead of refusing exit visas, India can help facilitate more resettlement opportunities” by advocating for resettlement in ally countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany and other European nations at forums like the G-20 summit. On the one hand they are disallowed from leaving when they get a chance to resettle in another country, on the other, the Rohingya in India are vilified as “illegal migrants”, face growing “anti-Muslim and anti-refugee xenophobia”, and live under constant fear of being deported back to Myanmar, “to the genocidal regime from which they fled”.

Also Read : Explained | What is India’s policy on the Rohingya?

Although the legal system and civil society have been working on behalf of the Rohingya, “those who speak out for the Rohingya are being threatened, particularly with loss of permission to access foreign funding,” the report observed, adding, “such voices should be supported, not constrained”.

Among the biggest challenges faced by Rohingya refugees in India, who number at least 20,000, is arbitrary detention. Once picked up, they are held in “holding centers” where conditions are “deplorable”, the study says. “Separating Rohingya children from their parents during detention remains another grave challenge,” says the report, which also includes a case study of such separation.

Actual and threatened deportations have also fostered a sense of fear within the Rohingya community, prompting some to return to camps in Bangladesh. Though the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the International Genocide Convention obligate India not to return the Rohingya to Myanmar, “the Supreme Court accepted the government’s arguments that the Rohingya were a threat to national security and refuses to stop deportation,” the report noted.

The report details the harsh living conditions of the Rohingya in slum-like settlements with no safe running water or toilets, and no access to basic healthcare, education for children, or employment opportunities. While earlier the UNHCR cards had provided access to some level of education and livelihoods, and to protection from detention and deportation, now the government has taken a stand that “UNHCR refugee status without valid travel documents is of no consequence in India”. With the downgrading of the UNHCR cards, the Rohingya are unable to get an Aadhaar card, without which school admissions have become impossible for them.

In the light of all these hardships, the report sets out several recommendations. First and foremost, it urges India to formally recognise the Rohingya in India as “refugees with a right to asylum rather than as illegal migrants”. To make this happen, India needs to sign the Refugee Convention and establish a domestic law on refugees and asylum. Short of this, the least that India could do is “a simple acknowledgement of residency” by recognising UNHCR cards as “sufficient for accessing basic education, work, and health services or provision of Aadhaar cards to refugees as proof of residency.”

The report points out that better treatment of refugees is in India’s interest, as it would “give the government more global credibility” and also “serve national security interests, as new arrivals would be officially documented and not incentivised to remain under the radar.” It also urges the U.S. to raise with India, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the White House in the summer of 2023 and when President Joe Biden attends the G-20 summit in Delhi in September this year, concerns over detention, deportation and the status of Rohingya in India.

The report is based on trips to Rohingya settlements in Delhi and Hyderabad in February and March 2023 and research conducted through interviews with Rohingya refugees, refugee-led organisations, UN officials, local and international NGOs providing humanitarian and legal assistance to the Rohingyas, and other experts.

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