Mohammed Tahir, a 17-year-old Rohingya from Myanmar, is pictured in New Delhi, July 24, 2015. [BenarNews]
By Rohit Wadhwaney
At 17, Mohammed Tahir has experienced more suffering than most people of his age can imagine.
A Rohingya Muslim, he fled Myanmar three years ago, only to land a job in Bangladesh as a servant in which his master beat him, Tahir said. He escaped to India but wound up in prison in West Bengal state after authorities caught him entering the country illegally.
“I’ve seen my childhood crumble before my eyes,” Tahir told BenarNews in a New Delhi slum, where he now lives after being bailed out of prison last month.
Some 10,600 Rohingyas live in India, including nearly 6,700 in the restive northern state of Jammu & Kashmir, Bureau of Immigration figures show.
The Rohingyas are among more than 200,000 foreigners who have fled to India from conflicts in other countries. However, India has no legal framework that recognizes or protects them as refugees.
As for Rohingya Muslims, their situation is even more precarious because the government of Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens. Myanmar officials often refer to Rohingyas as “Bengalis.”
Mohammed Tahir lives today with his 37-year-old brother, Ilyas, in a makeshift hut in a Delhi wasteland, which some 60 other Rohingya families call home.
The teen fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2012, following a wave of attacks in western Rakhine state that mostly targeted Rohingya Muslims.
“I saw my father being beaten to death by the army. That night, my mother made me promise that I would find a way to escape and never return to Burma,” Tahir said in his native language, as his brother translated his words into broken Hindi.
A few days after he and 13 others landed in Bangladesh by boat, a wealthy landlord hired him as a servant.
He employed Tahir for two years, but treated him like a slave, the young man recalled. The boss provided him with “bare minimum food” and “enough beatings to last a lifetime,” Tahir said.
“It was terrible. But then, I thought that’s a Rohingya’s fate,” Tahir said.
When he finally escaped from the landlord, the teenager said he had to bribe Bangladeshi border guards to let him cross into India. He was arrested after setting foot there.
Tahir spent the next three months incarcerated in the Balurghat Correctional Home. Ilyas, a laborer who earns about 200 rupees ($3) a day, somehow scraped together 35,000 rupees ($548) to retain a lawyer and post bail for his brother’s release.
“I saved up every penny I made, took loans from neighbors to collect the amount. I had to. I couldn’t sleep at night, knowing my younger brother was in prison,” said Ilyas, who has been living in the low-lying slum in southeast Delhi with his wife and two children since 2013.
Not all Rohingya immigrants who get caught trying to cross into India from Bangladesh have relatives like Ilyas who can bail them out.
An intelligence source told BenarNews that “nearly 1,000” Rohingya migrants are thought to be languishing in prisons in West Bengal as well as in northeastern Indian states that border Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“I’m fortunate I got out and can at least hope to restart my life,” Tahir said. “There were several other Rohingyas in prison with me. Some of them have been there for years and have no hope of ever getting out.”
Incarcerated well past their terms
Adhir Sharma, additional director general of West Bengal’s Correctional Services, challenged the authenticity of the figure of nearly 1,000 Rohingyas incarcerated in West Bengal and the northeast.
“As far as I know, there are no more than 150 Rohingya people in West Bengal prisons,” Sharma told BenarNews.
He acknowledged that some Rohingya inmates had identified themselves as Bangladeshis in the hopes that India might deport then to Bangladesh after they served out their sentences.
“The number of Rohingya migrants in Indian prisons may very well be higher than that on record because they hide the fact they are from Myanmar. If they don’t, they’ll be stuck in prison even after completing their sentences because their government doesn’t recognize them as citizens,” Madhurima Dhanuka of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a local BGO, told BenarNews.