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Rohingya refugees ‘speechless’ after U-turn

Homeless thank India and seek solidarity as governments fight over housing mess
Tasleema, 37, at the Rohingya settlement in Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Tasleema, 37, at the Rohingya settlement in Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi on Wednesday.
PTI picture

Pheroze L. Vincent   |   New Delhi   |   Published 19.08.22, 02:40 AM

Sabber Kyaw Min waited a good seven hours before issuing a media release thanking the Centre for announcing that Rohingya refugees would be resettled in Bakkarwala near Delhi’s western boundary with Haryana. But it was too good to be true.

Although the flats are in the back of beyond, far from Okhla where most Rohingyas in the capital live and work as daily wagers and domestic helps, this would have been the first official recognition of them as humans — and not the several unproven labels of them being criminals, rioters or vermin. An estimated 1,080 Rohingyas live in different parts of Delhi.

But Kyaw Min, the director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative here, had spoken too soon. On Wednesday afternoon, the Union home ministry practically nullified the offer made by housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Puri in the morning.

After withdrawing his statement, the Rohingya activist was too choked with emotion to respond to queries from this newspaper.

He told The Telegraph on Wednesday: “I am speechless, please forgive me. We thank India for simply allowing us to live here so far. There are refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, too, in Delhi. I don’t know why people have a problem with us.”

Most Rohingya huts in Okhla’s Madanpur Khadar on the west bank of the Yamuna were gutted in a fire in June last year. As they were rebuilding their shanties, the Uttar Pradesh irrigation department tore them down. The department owns a part of the Delhi floodplain the slum was located on.

“Half of us are living on the premises of the (NGO) Zakat Foundation of India in the area, and the rest live in the open on the lanes of Madanpur Khadar. After the fire and the eviction, the UNHCR (the United Nations’ refugee agency) held talks with the sub-divisional magistrate and we were given food and water for three months. A large number of police personnel have been deployed here for some time, and they told us that we would eventually be moved somewhere,” Kyaw Min said.

The first Rohingya refugee child to enter college, Tasmida Johar, is from this slum. Like her, many of the children go to schools run by Jamia Millia Islamia and other charitable institutions that do not insist on Aadhaar cards for admission.

“The genocide case against Myanmar is being heard at the International Court of Justice. The US in March this year recognised the genocide against us. India is our neighbour and is respected in the world community. We plead for your solidarity in this hour of crisis, and your support in our rightful return to Myanmar when the conditions are safe. We request India to take a humanitarian stand for our physical and mental well-being,” Kyaw Min said.

In a statement on Thursday, Kyaw Min said at least 17 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR had been deported from India since 2017, and 294, including four children, were in detention.

“It came as a surprise to the whole Rohingya community, as neither the UNHCR nor the government shared or discussed such plans (of resettlement)…. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council and a country that has taken in refugees who were persecuted in their home countries, we urge the Indian government to give the Rohingya people the tools they need to claim their right to life,” he said.

The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi has accused the Centre of keeping it in the dark. Referring to a home ministry tweet that the Delhi government had requested for the Rohingyas to be shifted, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia tweeted on Wednesday: “The news that the central government was not tired of boasting in the morning, after being opposed by the Aam Aadmi Party, has now started putting the responsibility blaming the Delhi government. Whereas it is a fact that the central government was secretly trying to give permanent residence to the Rohingyas in Delhi.”

He added: “At the behest of the central government, the officers and police took decisions only on the orders of the LG, which were sent for the approval of the LG without showing it to the Chief Minister or the Home Minister.”

Sisodia wrote to Union home minister Amit Shah on Thursday asking for a probe into the move to shift the Rohingyas to apartments in the national capital without his knowledge, if indeed it happened without the approval of the Centre.

He wrote: “The Delhi government opposes any step to give temporary or permanent accommodation to Bangladeshi Rohingyas in Delhi…. This is a matter of national security and the security of every citizen in Delhi is affected by this.”

By describing the refugees as “Bangladeshi Rohingyas”, Sisodia echoed Myanmar’s ruling junta which considers the community as immigrants from what is now Bangladesh, and does not recognise them as citizens.

AAP’s chief spokesman and MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj pointed to a file noting by the principal secretary of the Delhi home department that was marked to the lieutenant governor through chief secretary Naresh Kumar — without it being put before Sisodia, who handles the home portfolio. Kumar did not respond to a query on the resettlement plan from this newspaper.

BJP MP Gautam Gambhir on Thursday tweeted a letter from Delhi’s home department to the New Delhi Municipal Council in June, asking for the Bakkarwala flats to supplement the existing “restriction centres” of the Foreigners Regional Registration Office that are overcrowded. It was a request of the FRRO, which reports to the Union home ministry, that the Delhi government had forwarded.

The police in the capital report to the LG. After a communal flare-up in April, AAP had accused the BJP of settling Bangladeshis and Rohingyas in Delhi to engineer riots — although all the accused were Indian nationals.

The UNHCR has 26,095 refugees from Myanmar registered in India. These are mainly Rohingyas and Chins. The former is a Muslim-majority community and the latter Christian.

In a reply in the Rajya Sabha in 2017, the Centre had said it estimated the total number of Rohingya refugees to be around 40,000. Many have since fled crackdowns by the police and vigilante groups, and moved to Bangladesh where they have been kept in designated camps for refugees, like India has for Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans.

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