By Ruhani Kaur
December 6, 2014
At a time when India-Myanmar relations are improving, Rohingya refugees in the Capital are struggling to rebuild their lives
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy pushes for better regional connectivity and cultural contact with neighbouring Myanmar—a country edging towards democracy. Just last month, at a time when plans for a trilateral highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand were being chalked out, an elderly woman, who had spent the past few months hiding in the jungles of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, risked her life to cross over to India through Bangladesh.
In the narrow lanes of New Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj slums, she reunited with her eldest son, Abdul Karim. They are from the Rohingya community—a long-persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar. The members of this ethnic group are not recognized as citizens by the Myanmar government and continue to suffer vicious attacks and systematic abuse at the hands of the junta. Over the years, many Rohingyas have fled Myanmar, and some have sought refuge in India.
Karim is one of them. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the Capital has around 9,000 Rohingyas. India, though a relatively safe haven for refugees from neighbouring countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, does not really have any laws in place to offer permanent asylum to people who have no place to call home.
At Kalindi Kunj, home to around 150 Rohingya families, the neighbours huddle together, curious yet fearful of the news the elderly woman brings. She talks of the continued raids on Rohingya villages by the junta, to try and force them to accept that they are Bangladeshis. Memories come flooding back for the rest.
Karim shrugs at the irony of Bangladeshi Buddhists being allowed to build homes and live peacefully in Myanmar. According to recent news reports, the Myanmar government has drafted a plan that will give around a million members of the Rohingya Muslim minority a bleak choice: Accept ethnic reclassification and the prospect of citizenship, or be detained.
Life in the Kalindi Kunj tents, made of bamboo and tarpaulin sheets, is hard. During the monsoon, the residents have to scoop out water from the agricultural plot given to them by the Zakat Foundation of India, a non-governmental organization (NGO) which collects and utilizes zakat, or charity, for socially beneficial projects. The residents now say that the foundation wants the land back to build an orphanage, as originally planned.
Most of the women from the community work as ragpickers, and the men as construction labourers. Mohammed Farooq, a construction worker, says he has repeatedly asked his former employer to hand over his pending wages, only to be shooed away. “Our employers know we are outsiders and the police wouldn’t help us,” he laments.
His neighbour, 13-year-old Mohammed Hussain Johar, comes visiting only on holidays—he is one of the few Rohingya children who has a chance to study at an UNHCR-aided private school in Vikaspuri, at the other end of the city, because his elder brother works there. Most of the other children have been enrolled by the Zakat Foundation in a school nearby.
In preparation for winter, everybody is busy with repairs. In October, most people had managed to recover abandoned bamboo planks from the Durga idols immersion site at the Yamuna river close by.
The refugees here insist that this shouldn’t be misunderstood as settling down—each of them nurses the hope of settling, but in a place meant for them.