India’s Rohingya refugee community fights deportation threat

 In World

Having fled Myanmar more than 14 years ago to escape persecution, Salimullah now lives in a makeshift Rohingya settlement, where he owns and operates a small general store.

“Here, after becoming refugees, we found the right to work, the right to go anywhere we’d like,” he said.

“The (government in Myanmar) kept us in such a narrow and helpless state,” he tells CNN.

Now, he worries that his hard-won freedom is under threat.

On Tuesday, India’s supreme court will consider a case brought on behalf of Salimullah against the deportation of the more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India.

The attempt to deport the refugees comes as more than half a million Muslim Rohingya have been forced to flee from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape deadly violence that has been described by the United Nations as “ethnic cleansing.”
Salimullah, a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar in 2003, sits in front of the general store he know operates in the Kanchan Kunj Rohingya settlement in Delhi, India.

Attitudes change

Changes in people’s attitude to Delhi’s Rohingya first began in August, when news emerged of guidance sent by India’s federal government, currently run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to the country’s 29 states, asking local officials to identify illegal immigrants for deportation — including, the guidance said, Rohingya Muslims who had fled Myanmar.

“As per available estimates there are around 40,000 Rohingya living illegally in the country,” India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju told Parliament on August 9. “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”

Rijiju characterized the move as a “continuous process.”

The words from one of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministers set off a wave of fear and uncertainty across Rohingya settlements in India.

“We felt scared, we asked people about what we should do, who we should talk to,” Salimullah says. “Where else can we go?”

The Kanchan Kunj Rohingya settlement on the outskirts of Delhi, India

Temporary settlements

Salimullah left Myanmar in 2003, after, he says, his father was harassed and locked up by the police. He spent eight years in Bangladesh, working as an auto rickshaw driver. But life in Bangladesh was also restrictive, he adds. “You had to get permission just to leave the camps.”

He eventually left for India, crossing the border with his family in 2011. The Rohingya in India are scattered across India, from Kashmir in the north to Hyderabad in the South. Salimullah decided on Delhi.

Salimullah now lives in Kanchan Kunj, a Rohingya settlement in the city’s southeast, just off the banks of the Yamuna river.

Kanchan Kunj is one of four Rohingya settlements in the city, and the oldest. The 50-odd homes there are all temporary structures, made with wooden planks, held down with bricks and covered in tarp. The structures last somewhere between two to four years, Salimullah said, though the community itself has been there since 2012.

A woman in Delhi's Kanchan Kunj Rohingya settlement dries fish caught in the nearby Yamuna river.

Flies swarm in front of Salimullah’s shop, a wooden structure that stands on a patch of land off the banks of the Yamuna river at Delhi’s city border. They buzz and loop around his body, but he doesn’t spend much time batting them away.

When the news about the risk of deportation broke in August, Salimullah suddenly started getting visitors at his shop. Local political party representatives, activists, reporters — people who wanted to find out more about him and his fellow Rohingya refugees after the minister’s remarks.

It was then, as the media and others descended on Kanchan Kunj, that Sailmullah learned that he could petition India’s top court to try and prevent deportation.

He was still apprehensive, though. “I thought we can’t go there (Myanmar) they will kill us. What can I do about this?” he says.

Eventually, he approached supreme court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who agreed to take his case and filed a petition asking for protection of Rohingya refugees from deportation on September 1.

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