Mohammed Salim Ullah stands outside a New Delhi slum that he and other stateless Rohingya refugees call home. [BenarNews]By Rohit Wadhwaney
Sitting in a bamboo hut in a filthy wasteland of southeast Delhi, Mohammed Salim Ullah, a stateless Rohingya, seemed unaware of the crisis facing members of his community stranded in Southeast Asian waters.
But the news didn’t surprise him.
“Worse things have happened to our people,” the 27-year-old told BenarNews.
Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are feared trapped at sea off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with no country willing to take them in. Sick, hungry and desperate, some are reportedly drinking their own urine to quench their thirst.
“In Burma, our parents were killed in front of our eyes, mothers were raped in front of their children, we were beaten like stray dogs,” Ullah said.
In 2012, he fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – following a wave of attacks on the population of nearly one million Rohingya Muslims living in western Rakhine state. He and his wife and two-year-old son trekked to India after crossing the border into Bangladesh.
“The brutality went on for years. No one did anything to help us then. Why would anything change now?” said Ullah.
His family now lives with some 60 other Rohingya families in a low-lying shantytown of bamboo huts covered with tarpaulin sheets in the Kalindi Kunj section of the Indian capital.
He runs a small shop in the settlement, selling knick-knacks ranging from candy and potato chips to mosquito repellants and minor first-aid kits.
A breath of freedom
India hosts more than 200,000 foreigners fleeing conflict zones such as in Afghanistan, Tibet, Somalia and Myanmar, but has no legal framework that recognizes or protects refugees.
The slum settlement where Ullah lives has no electricity, clean water or toilets.
Its 160 residents, many of whom work as rag-pickers or daily-wage laborers earning less than 300 rupees (U.S. $ 4.70) a day, are forced to defecate in the open behind bushes and in the already-polluted Yamuna River that flows behind their huts.
Ullah and his fellow slum-dwellers have gotten used to the filth and stench that surrounds them.
“But at least I can freely practice my religion here, knowing that I won’t be killed for it. At least I have hope that I can educate my children and they can lead a better life,” Ullah said.
His dream is to see his son Tamim (pictured), now 5, graduate from school one day.
Unofficial number unknown
Ullah is among 8,630 Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir and other parts of India who are registered with the national office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Since we don’t have verified information about the refugees who are not registered with us, we would not be able to confirm the unregistered Rohingya population in India,” UNHCR spokesperson Shuchita Mehta told BenarNews in an email.
The Rohingya, who lived for generations in what is now Myanmar, were rendered stateless by a citizenship law passed in 1982 by that country’s Buddhist-dominated government, which classified the minority as “Bengalis.”
The group has since been denied identity cards that are required for schooling, marriage, employment, or birth or death certificates.
With their freedom of movement in Myanmar restricted to squalid camps in Rakhine, and an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead, members of this minority have been fleeing persecution by the thousands, in hopes of a better life abroad.
UNHCR provides all registered Rohingya with an identity card, which “offers protection against arbitrary arrests, detention, or deportation,” Mehta said.
The agency gives a minimal allowance to a small number of them who are most in need, Mehta added.
Seeking better conditions
Yet despite their status as U.N.-recognized refugees, Rohingya Muslims face discrimination in India.
“We do arbitrary jobs only because no one employs us. No one wants to hire a refugee, especially a Muslim refugee,” said Mohammad Haroon, 41, a tea vendor who makes an average of about 200 rupees (U.S. $3.15) a day.
“In Burma, my family had 15 acres of farm land, which was snatched away from us in the 2012 communal violence in Rakhine. We were left with nothing but the clothes we had on when we fled and came to India,” Haroon told BenarNews.
He lives in a 12-foot by 12-foot hut in the Kalindi Kunj settlement with his two sisters and two teenaged nephews.
In the two years that he has lived there, not a single Indian government official has visited the settlement to inspect its pitiable conditions, Haroon said.
"A couple of years back, three children in the camp died of snake bites because the hospitals here refused to admit them due to lack of proper documentation,” Haroon said.
S.M. Amanullah of the Zakat Foundation of India, which owns the patch of land on which the Rohingya settlement sits, confirmed the 2013 incident.
“We have proposed to construct a one-story building with apartments for each Rohingya family. But the government has turned down the proposal, saying the low-lying area is not suitable for construction,” he said.
Amanullah said the government did not recognize the Rohingya minority living in India, and providing an alternate plot of land for them was out of the question.
“The 1,100-yard patch in Kalindi Kunj is the only space we have available,” Amanullah told BenarNews.
In 2013, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), a non-profit collective of lawyers and social activists, filed a case with the Indian Supreme Court of India seeking improved living conditions for almost 150 Rohingya refugee families living in Delhi and in neighboring Haryana state.
The date for the next hearing will take place in July.
“These families are extremely vulnerable, with no basic medical care or reliable source of water or secure shelters,” HRLN’s Kerry McBroom, who is involved with the case, told BenarNews. “Diseases such as malaria, dengue and diarrhea are rampant in these camps. Children have died due to lack of medical attention.”
The plight of those Rohingya families settled in Haryana is worse because, due to the government’s indifference toward them, they can only set up camp on private property, McBroom noted.
“They constantly have to move their camps from one place to another as and when someone kicks them out,” she said.
Eating without fear
Despite the governmental neglect and inhospitable environment, 23-year-old Samjida Begam, who lost her husband in the 2012 violence in Myanmar, said she did not want to leave.
“I get to eat a couple of meals a day without fear. That’s enough,” Samjida, a rag picker, said, while watching her 4-year-old son play in a puddle of dirty water outsider her hut in Kalindi Kunj.
“Myanmar can do what it wants. I never want to go there again,” she added.
“I am more bothered about the oncoming monsoon season, when the dirty river water will flood our camp and all of us will get busy bucketing out the filth for days on end,” she told BenarNews.