New Delhi, India – On the fifth anniversary of the start of military atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar, those of them living in India find themselves caught in a web of uncertainty and fear as the Indian government tightens restrictions on refugees in the country.
Muhammad, 40, who has three children, arrived in India in 2012 and lives in one of the temporary Rohingya shelters located in southeast Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj area where more than 300 refugees live.
Muhammad, who did not want to be identified by his full name, said he fears the Indian government can detain him at any time. He also said he was “sceptical to speak to the media” and how the Rohingya faced increased surveillance from Indian authorities at refugee camps.
“I have three children. More than myself, I fear for them,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We should be allowed to live until we are able to go back to Myanmar – when it is safe for us. Who wants to live away from [their] homeland, like us, in a wretched situation?”
The United Nations says nearly 40,000 Rohingya have fled to India from Myanmar, most of them in 2017 when the military crackdown began.
However, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar over decades as the displacement of their community by the military has also persisted for decades.
Between 2012 and 2016, an estimated 13,000 Rohingya entered India, according to the UN refugee agency, and many of the refugees interviewed by Al Jazeera had fled before the escalation of violence five years ago this month.
At least 20,000 Rohingya are registered in India with the UN’s refugee agency and an estimated 1,100 live in New Delhi, including at the Kalindi Kunj camp.
In recent years, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has become hostile towards Rohingya refugees and has called for their deportation.
Living in shacks made of tarpaulin and bamboo, refugees at the camps in Kalindi Kunj told Al Jazeera how their shelters “mysteriously” caught fire twice since 2018.
The unexplained blazes have increased their anxieties.
“Even at night, when we should be resting, we are sleepless and go out to check in the darkness, fearing that we might be harmed,” said Tanzeem Akhtar, a 20-year-old Rohingya student who arrived in India with her parents 10 years ago.
Tanzeem said Rohingya refugees live in “constant fear”.
“We do not know what they will do to us,” she said.
“Sometimes, I look at people of my age walking on the roads, laughing, enjoying their lives and I curse myself; why our lives can’t be like them?”
“We are working hard and living one day at a time. If we are detained, that will be worse than death,” she said.
‘A nightmare, every day’
On August 17, Rohingya activists had a glimmer of hope when India’s Housing and Urban Affairs Minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, said the government would address the housing problems of the Rohingya refugees. The minister said that “refugees” would be moved to flats in Delhi and receive basic amenities.
Just hours after the minister’s statement, the Indian Home Ministry denied the government intended to house Rohingya refugees, adding that it regarded the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and planned to deport them back to their country.
“Illegal foreigners are to be kept in the detention centre until their deportation, as per law,” the ministry said.
Detentions and deportation are part of the governing BJP’s crackdown on Rohingya refugees.
BJP leaders across India have campaigned for the refugees to be expelled. Many Rohingya are now feeling the antipathy of a right-wing Hindu exclusivist ideology that views Muslims, even those who are Indian citizens, as second-class citizens.
Rights activists say that since 2017, India has deported 16 Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. The deportations, they say, violate the principle of non-refoulement, which states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they may face persecution.
Ali Johar, who heads the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, an organisation that fights for the rights of Rohingya people in India, told Al Jazeera that 2,500 Rohingya had left for Bangladesh in recent months due to the deteriorating human rights situation in India.
“For Rohingya, it’s a nightmare, every day,” Johar said.
“Political debates have been used as xenophobic campaigns against the Rohingya refugees by some elements. These recent developments just further fuelled the already deteriorating situation of Rohingya refugees in India,” he said.
India has defended the deportations by arguing that it is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, which details the legal obligations of signatory countries to protect those seeking refuge.
India’s top court also refused to intervene last year after activists petitioned against the government’s decision to deport Rohingya refugees.
The UN refugee agency has reported that at least 240 Rohingya in India are currently detained on charges of illegal entry.
Genocide in Myanmar
It was on August 25, 2017, when Myanmar’s military began to perpetrate mass atrocities against the Rohingya population in the country’s Rakhine state. The military called its operation a clearance campaign in the aftermath of an alleged attack by a Rohingya armed group.
Rohingya villages were razed to the ground by the military and residents were systematically tortured, raped, and executed. An estimated 750,0000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape the violence.
The administration of US President Joe Biden declared in March that Myanmar’s military had committed genocide against the Rohingya.
Rights activists say the 2017 campaign of atrocities was “rooted in decades of state repression, discrimination, and violence” against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
While the refugee camps in Bangladesh, now home to nearly one million Rohingya who fled Myanmar, are witnessing increased levels of violence, refugees in India say their worsening situation is causing deep psychological distress.
“When we came initially, nobody harassed us, but for the last few years we have been living in a miserable situation,” said Shadan Ahmad, who arrived in India in 2013 with his wife and three-month-old son, hoping to find safe shelter.
“I just heard that the government is preparing to shift us and we are very nervous,” Shadan told Al Jazeera.
“Fear has overwhelmed most of the people in the community. We have only seen suffering in the last 10 years, it is only worsening,” said Shadan, who is based in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood and earns a living through teaching the Quran.
Another refugee, Shamas, 32, who arrived in India in 2005, said that if the Indian government deports Rohingya back to Myanmar forcefully, “there will be no difference between India and Burma”.
‘Play a more forceful’ role
On the fifth anniversary of the start of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, rights groups have demanded that countries in the Southeast Asia region adopt a more “forceful role in standing up for the Rohingya people”, and for India to do more to protect refugees.
Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said in a statement on Wednesday that authorities must respect and ensure the participation of the Rohingya in the decisions that affect them in order to protect their human rights.
“The Association of Southeast Asian Nations must also play a more forceful, decisive, and leadership role in standing up for the Rohingya people and pushing for accountability in Myanmar,” she said.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that the Indian government should join international efforts to ensure justice for Rohingya refugees.
“The Rohingya have suffered crimes against humanity and acts of genocide by the Myanmar military. That same military has now grabbed power,” Ganguly said.
“As the UN human rights high commissioner has said, the conditions are not right for the safe return of the refugees,” she said.
“India should be protecting the Rohingya, not threatening to return them to a place where they will be at risk.”