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No man’s refuge

Shome Basu | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017

As the Indian government vacillates on its move to deport Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, the fate of a community hangs in balance

Rohingya is a taboo word in Myanmar. Recently, it appears to have become a taboo in India, as well.

Among the few thousand Rohingya refugees in India, 40 families live in Delhi’s Madanpur Khader, on the banks of the Yamuna. Ethnic minorities from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, they are utterly despondent. The air is thick with news of their likely deportation by the Indian government, even as a genocide is underway back home. One of the refugees, Mohammed Salim, says, “We prayed for Aung San Suu Kyi when she was under house arrest. We wanted her to be released and make a new Myanmar. We never imagined that she would be worse for us.”

Crowded into rooms that are too small for their families, the refugees live in unsanitary conditions. The smoke from the makeshift kitchens hangs permanently in the air like a toxic haze. Since the river is close by, snakes and other reptiles move around freely.

Zakat Foundation, a non-profit run by a group of Delhiites, had offered the refugees the space for their camp, and takes care of their food and education needs. Having lived here since 2001, a few of the Rohingyas have learnt to speak Hindi. The Indian government, meanwhile, has been flip-flopping in its response to the crisis. Minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju recently told the UN, “I want to tell the international organisations whether the Rohingyas are registered under the UNHCR or not. (sic) They are illegal immigrants in India.”

At the Delhi camp, a Rohingya refugee termed Rijiju’s statement as unfair, given that India has accommodated many Tibetan, Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees. Many of them say they would rather die than be deported. Many of their children were born in India, and their fate remains uncertain. Salim has challenged the government’s move in the Supreme Court, even as Rijiju insisted there was no immediate plan to deport them.

Shome Basu is a Delhi-based photojournalist

Published on September 15, 2017