Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, we visit Myanmarese Rohingya Muslims, one of the world’s largest refugee communities in search of a homeland, citizenship and dignity
A Rohingya, says Faiz Ahmed, is born a refugee. Ahmed is sitting in the garage-turned-bedroom of his rented house; one of his sons is getting married to a fellow Rohingya. A refugee couple and their families, seeking social stability and emotional stasis through auspicious occasions such as the nikaah. The day holds the promise of mooring.
In a few hours, the bride will arrive. Barring strips of coloured paper, pop music blaring from one of the two small rooms shared by Ahmed’s 10-member family, and the smell of meat being cooked, there is no show of exultation or extravagance. Some of the guests are in grubby, everyday clothes. They are part of the 200-odd invitees, mostly Rohingyas living close to Ahmed’s decrepit Shaheen Nagar address, on the fringes of Hyderabad. The city, along with Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi, hosts a sizeable Rohingya refugee population. Rohingyas are also spread among other cities, with West Bengal having the largest number of them languishing in jails.
Even on a day of celebration, their refugee situation is not a discussion to be deferred. A social worker promises help to an impoverished Rohingya man suffering from a cardiac condition, while a guest recounts his story of harassment after he addressed a police officer in Hyderabad as “bhai”rather than “sir”. Within such anecdotes of financial and socio-cultural differences, Hamid, one of Ahmed’s sons, brings up Myanmar—the country they were forced to flee.
“To have a wedding like this, we required the Myanmar government’s permission and had to pay them a hefty amount. We had to pay even for inviting guests. For having children, we had to get the government’s nod. The government took over our lives when it couldn’t take them,” he says, grimly.
In 2012, Ahmed and his family were part of the mass exodus of ethnic Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar following violent clashes with extremists belonging to the Buddhist majority community. That year, ethnic conflicts between the two communities of Myanmar—the Buddhist population outnumbered the Muslim Rohingya population by an estimated 50: 1 ratio—which had been brewing for decades, reached boiling point. The number of people killed on both sides was around a hundred, many more were injured and more than 100,000 Rohingyas were left homeless—about a tenth of the Rohingya population.
From the time the country’s erstwhile military junta passed The Burma Citizenship Law in 1982, effectively denying citizenship rights to the Rohingyas (for being allegedly Bengali-speaking, illegal migrants from Bangladesh), they have lived as a stateless people.
Their lack of citizenship status denied them access to government schools, hospitals, property rights, individual freedoms, even the right to move beyond their ghettos in the Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state, bordering Bangladesh’s Chittagong region. The suspected complicity of the Myanmarese political establishment in the Buddhist-monk instigated riots of 2012, with another equally ferocious flare-up in 2013, meant Rohingya lives were at risk.
While allegations against the Rohingyas range from their leading a secessionist insurgency to deliberately provoking hatred, the community itself has come to be recognized by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted minorities. Also known as the “boat people”, in acknowledgement of the fact that large numbers of them escape over choppy seas in small, rickety boats, the Rohingyas have been turned back from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. While the first two countries later agreed to let them in temporarily, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott refused landing permission to 8,000-plus starving Rohingyas stranded at sea in 2015—“nope, nope, nope”.
In a harrowing incident in 2015, a Rohingya refugee boat, which also had children and women as passengers, was discovered adrift in the Andaman Sea off Thailand. They had little food and water, and many of the dead had been thrown overboard. The same year, a mass grave, filled with the bodies of Rohingya refugees, was discovered in Thailand.
The Rohingya are safe nowhere—not on land, and not on sea.
For 44 of his 70 years, Ahmed has been on the move, unmoored from his native land, where he worked as a cultivator. A third-generation inhabitant, Ahmed’s roots in Myanmar go back to the days of British rule, when many Rohingyas were brought to the Arakan region from undivided Bengal to work as farm help, a move that antagonized the native Arakan Buddhist population. This is why the Rohingyas came to be described as illegal, Bengali-speaking Muslim usurpers of land.
While the first Muslims in the Arakan region trace their ancestry to Arab traders from the eighth century, a Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1784-85 forced around 40,000 Muslim Arakanese to flee to then East Bengal’s Chittagong. Following the British takeover of Arakan in 1826, many moved back. During World War II, the Rohingya Muslims are known to have spied on behalf of the British against the invading Japanese forces, who were helped by the native Buddhist population. After the British withdrew from the region, the Rohingyas were left exposed to the Japanese-Burmese Buddhist forces.
The simmering Muslim-Buddhist tension erupted in 1942, with the first large-scale riots leading to the death of about 5,000 Rohingyas. A large number of people were killed on the other side too. The Rohingya demand for a separate Muslim state began in 1947.
It has been a blood-splattered history of rioting, murder and intimidation since.
While the Rohingyas have vociferously contested the Bengali tag, pointing to their own language and culture, the Myanmar establishment has held on to the assertion, so the Rohingyas are not recognized as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups. Denial of their citizenship rights has forced some members of the community to restrict their movements and religious activities to demarcated areas; and restrictions were imposed on marriage and childbirth.
There were hopes of a rapprochement after Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962. But she asked the US ambassador to the country last month to refrain from describing the Muslim population as Rohingya, since the government does not recognize any such nomenclature. A couple of years ago, in an interview to the BBC, Suu Kyi offered no solution. A book by Peter Popham, The Lady And The Generals, published earlier this year, quoted the Nobel laureate as saying angrily and controversially after the interview, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” An emailed questionnaire to Suu Kyi’s office has not been responded to.
Ahmed grew up hearing stories of hostility and distrust, he says, as sectarian violence would consume the region every once in a while. Indeed, maramari (violence) is the only Bengali word I, a native Bengali speaker, could discern in Ahmed’s speech—he spoke via a translator.
A tall and lanky man, Ahmed remains busy during our conversation, overseeing preparations for the wedding. In a well-worn vest and lungi, a faux pearl necklace is the only finery he wears for the occasion.
The man’s experience as a refugee began at the age of 26, one year after his own wedding, when the rioting happened too close to home to be ignored any longer. With other people from his village, he escaped to Bangladesh, staying at a camp near Cox’s Bazar for a year. Helped by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he returned to Myanmar and stayed for 17 years. Then, aged 44, he fled to Bangladesh when Buddhist-Muslim violence erupted again. Three years later, he returned to Myanmar, this time for 19 years.
The fragile calm ended on a summer day in 2012, a vivid memory Ahmed relives through the smell of gunpowder and the wail of death.
He used to live close to Maungdaw town in Rakhine state, where most village mosques had been closed or burnt down by Buddhist extremists. Muslim villagers were not allowed to offer namaz or wear the fez, he says. With only a Jama Masjid allowed to stay open, 30km away from his home, Ahmed joined a few thousand Muslims to offer prayers. Outside, he recounts with horror, the mosque had been surrounded by heavily armed policemen and Buddhist militants. Around 2.30pm, the firing started.
“They targeted the front door and I saw bodies and blood splattered all around. I had been sitting at the front (in the front row, with his back facing the front door) and escaped through a window,” says Ahmed. As is usual in such circumstances, there are conflicting reports on which of the warring parties triggered the violence. There is unanimity, though, over the fact that the 2012 and 2013 Rakhine state riots were among the worst ever in Myanmar and formed the heinous backdrop to the mass exodus and dispersal of people.
This time, Ahmed headed to India.
Opportune bribes made it easy for Ahmed to cross the Hili border post in West Bengal. The couple could travel only with their youngest son, Zakir, then 12 years old; their other five children joined the family in Hyderabad later. Having crossed the border into India, Ahmed went looking for water. When he returned, he found Zakir missing. The boy had been picked up by the Border Security Force and handed over to their Bangladeshi counterparts, who sent the boy to a Bangladeshi juvenile remand home. The boy reunited with his parents a year later—Ahmed spentRs.60,000 to get him released from the remand home. A close relative who was staying at the Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh helped him.
It’s been a long and torturous journey to India for Ahmed—thrice uprooted from his land, never allowed to settle down and a face, still, of the politics of sectarianism and hatred. As Zakir, now 16, hovers around, mingling with children of his height and age, his elderly father, stoic in his response to questions, worries about the future. “In Burma, they would call us illegal Bengalis from Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, they would derogatorily refer to us as Burmese and in India, they call us refugees. Tell me, who are we?” he wonders aloud. He answers his own question. “We are poor people looking for food to eat and a home to stay in.”
“Unlike the Syrian and African refugee crises, the Rohingyas aren’t big international news, primarily because the refugees haven’t reached Europe. What is important in world discourse is what happens in Europe and North America,” says Paula Banerjee, professor and head of the department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at Calcutta University. In 2015, as director of the Calcutta Research Group—a Kolkata-based forum of public activists and socially committed researchers—Prof. Banerjee oversaw the publication of an extensive 105-page report on the Rohingya crisis, titled Rohingyas: The Emergence of A Stateless Community. “It is sad that a person of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature has not spoken up. It shows the minority community’s vulnerability,” she adds.
More than 15,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers are registered with the UNHCR in India. Many more are reported to be off the UNHCR radar. The numbers have seen a dramatic increase since the “pogrom” of 2012, says Mazher Hussain, executive director of the Hyderabad-based Confederation of Voluntary Associations (Cova), a partner organization of the UNHCR. Cova facilitates the availability of basic human rights to refugees in Hyderabad, where approximately 3,200 Rohingyas are settled. “Nearly 11,000 Rohingya refugees in India have received UNHCR refugee cards,” says Ipshita Sengupta, policy associate, UNHCR, India. “The card gives them recognition as a refugee in India and protects them from detention and deportation. Their access to basic services such as education and health is improved with UNHCR documentation. They can apply for long-term visas on the basis of UNHCR refugee cards,” she adds.
Even though the country lacks a national legal framework for refugees, India, says Sengupta, has been generous in its treatment of all refugee groups, including the Rohingyas, who live here freely and safely. In Hyderabad itself, says Hussain, refugees and asylum seekers from 10 different countries have found shelter. It’s in India, many young Rohingyas tell me, that they have first tasted freedom. “India has acted according to the country’s rich legacy of tolerance and acceptance towards refugees. Unlike Australia, a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention but a problematic country, India should be proud,” says Banerjee.
Ahead of 20 June, the UN-mandated World Refugee Day, a day for awareness on refugee issues, Indian magnanimity provides a stark contrast to the current global refugee crisis that is assuming gargantuan proportions. According to UNHCR estimates, an astounding 59.5 million people have been displaced forcibly from their land and there are about 10 million stateless people worldwide.
With increasing religious and sectarian strife across the world, around 42,500 people are forced to flee their homes daily. “Today the number of global refugees is more than during World War II. In 2014, it was estimated that when assembled together, the number of global refugees would make it the world’s 14th most populous country. 2015 has seen an unprecedented rise in numbers,” says Hussain. The day is not far when refugees will become the most populous segment in the world, he says.
Beyond the cold numbers are the stories of the Rohingyas’ grit and struggle; they survive rather than live.
At Shaheen Nagar, I meet Mohammad Salim, camp leader of a Rohingya settlement on land benevolently provided by a Muslim businessman, one of the many who came forward to help. But since the Bodh Gaya and Burdwan blasts of 2013 and 2014, respectively, when some Rohingyas in Hyderabad came under suspicion, donors have become wary of contributing financially, says Hussain.
While 70-odd refugee families earlier lived in hovels on the land, the construction of a school there has forced out 50 of them. Some have rented accommodation in slums and hovels in Shaheen Nagar and other parts of Hyderabad. Lacking education and vocational skills, most able-bodied Rohingya men can be found every morning at the adda(labour pickup points), offering their services as manual help at construction sites, earning anything from Rs.400-450 a day. The fortunate find employment for 15 days a month.
Salim, along with his wife and four children—none of whom attend school—have stayed on at the site. He fled Myanmar after a machete-wielding Buddhist hacked his father to death, “almost like killing a mosquito”. He works at the school construction site, unmindful, possibly, of the irony that the school will eventually force him off this land. “Construction will be over in a few months. I’m not sure where I’ll go with my family,” says Salim, his face and arms plastered in slimy cement. He’ll soon have to confront the situation of being a refugee again.
“I got 98% marks in my class X exam and aimed to be a college lecturer. But look at me now, sir,” says 21-year-old Mohammad Hinayath Ullah. “I can’t work as construction labour since I’m not trained for it, neither can I find gainful employment. I’ve been reduced to a beggar without an identity. I envy people who can say they are from Kolkata or Delhi. We are from nowhere and have nowhere to go.”
Nineteen-year-old Mohammad Zubair, who works in a meat-packaging factory nearby, is determined to return to his village near Maungdaw town—he remembers the green fields, streams, hillocks, friends and family that he left hurriedly after a friend was stabbed to death one evening. While his father escaped to Saudi Arabia, Zubair, lying on the single cot in his small rented room, is often possessed by the refugee’s recurrent dream: of returning. His mother and two sisters have stayed back in Myanmar; women are not targeted as much as young men.
Saving Rs.8,300 from the less than Rs.10,000 he earns from his meat-packaging factory job, Zubair recently bought a “Samsung G2 mobile phone”. He uses it for video chats with his Saudi Arabia-based father and voice-chats with his mother in Myanmar. “Being close to the border, she uses a Bangladeshi SIM card to keep mobile phone rates low. If the police find out, they’ll jail her. She speaks in whispers. She worries about what I eat, but no longer about my life, since I’m in India. I worry about her and my sisters since they are in Myanmar. Our worries are whispered,” he laughs.
Even as we speak, the groom’s family is ready to leave for the bride’s house. It’s nearing evening, the rituals of thenikaah have already been delayed. Ahmed has put on a faded kurta over his vest and occupies the hired Toyota Qualis’ front seat. Seven family members crowd into the remaining spaces.
Left behind are children and women. Soon, a couple of children accost me; they want Tiger biscuits. Even as I buy them a packet, other children run past the thin, grimy curtain of the wedding house looking for biscuits. A guest, an elderly Rohingya woman carrying a child at her bosom, pleads with me to buy another packet. She points to the child. I oblige. She hands over one to the child and has most of the remaining biscuits herself.