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Repatriation of Rohingya Refugees: An Aberration on India’s Humanitarian Legacy

Col (Dr) D.P.K. Pillay is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 16, 2018

    On October 04, 2018, India handed over seven Rohingya immigrants to the Myanmar authorities at Moreh on the India-Myanmar border. The Supreme Court allowed their deportation on the ground that Myanmar had accepted them as citizens. Around 40,000 Rohingya refugees are believed to be in India, though only 18,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Ministry of Home Affairs has asked state governments to start collecting the biometrics of Rohingyas who have illegally entered the country so that they can be deported to Myanmar. Rohingyas have been living in India since before the arrival of the recent wave of refugees in 2017.

    It is noteworthy that Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Poles and many other communities had made India their home when they were persecuted in their countries of origin. In recent history, India has hosted the Dalai Lama and lakhs of his followers fleeing Chinese occupation and ethnic cleansing of Tibet, as well as millions of East Pakistani refugees fleeing genocide in 1970-71. Lakhs of Tamil refugees fleeing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka were given refuge, as were Afghans and Somalians. In fact, the partition of India had resulted in the movement of millions of refugees, and many of those refugees became successful entrepreneurs and professionals, making significant contributions to the Indian economy, and indeed, its social and cultural environment.

    The Rohingyas are one of the world’s “most persecuted” communities. Around 1.2 million live in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where they have co-habited for generations with others for over hundreds of years. They may have converted to Islam in the wake of trade contacts with the Arab world, as happened in Kerala and Maldives, but there are even today a sprinkling of Hindus amongst them. Today, in Buddhist majority Myanmar, the Rohingyas are, however, termed as ‘illegal immigrants’ after the adoption of the Citizenship Law of 1982 which does not recognise this community as one of the 135 legally recognised ethnic groups of Myanmar.

    The violence – and the institutionalised discrimination against the Rohingyas – surprisingly also appears to have left Nobel Laureate and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung Sang Syu Ki unmoved, despite her own long record of struggle against an undemocratic regime. As a result of the violence, which reportedly includes killings, house burning and sexual violence, thousands of Rohingyas have been fleeing, mainly to Bangladesh; that number has now reached half a million. Among them are about 500 Hindus, showing that the campaign of violence in Rakhine is one of deadly majoritarianism, intolerant of any minority. Around 40,000 Rohingyas have found their way into India having illegally crossed the India-Bangladesh border to escape from a living hell in Myanmar.   

    The Rohingyas have lent themselves to be viewed with suspicion because reports claim that some of them are involved in drug trafficking in the Northeast and are conduits for terror activities. The Government of India had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and must be deported as they are a serious security threat. India thereafter repatriated the first batch of Rohingyas to Myanmar.

    Most refugees dream of going home one day. This was true of the refugees during the Partition of India, many of whom still dream of visiting their homes someday. It is true of Syrian refugees who have seen their country crumble. It was true of the Bangladeshis and the Sri Lankans as well as the dream of every Tibetan. India has successfully repatriated several refugees in the recent past. But the situation back in Myanmar is so dire that the refugees cannot imagine of returning. Further, the core principle of the UN Refugee Convention requires that refugees cannot be returned to the country where they face serious threats to life or freedom. The principle of non-refoulement, or non-forcible return of refugees, considered a rule of customary international law, is binding on all states whether they have signed the Convention or not. India has also, rightly and consistently, endorsed the principle of non-refoulement at various international platforms including the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee which discusses human rights issues, the UN Human Rights Council and at the Executive Committee of UNHCR. At the 66th session of the UNHCR Executive Committee in 2015, the Indian delegation had affirmed:

    “India’s assimilative civilizational heritage, inherent capabilities as a State with a good record of non-refoulement, hosting and assimilating refugees gives us a rounded perspective on dealing with matters pertaining to refugees and other persons of concern. India has a tradition of receiving refugees and migrants since millennia. We remain committed to these principles as these have been part of Indian ethos and civilization.”1

    The government and its agencies are capable of sifting out those Rohingyas who might actually have links to terror organisations from the rest of the group. India’s security and intelligence apparatus also has the wherewithal to handle individual members of the Rohingya community in India on a case to case basis. The mere possibility or “threat” of violence by some members of the group does not warrant collective punishment of the entire group. During the exodus of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, those that were suspected to have links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) did enter India, but Tamil refugees as a group were not turned away on the grounds of “national security”. To ultimately force all Rohingyas including women and children to return on the grounds of “threat to security” is not merely a violation of international law but is also against our humanitarian heritage and standards of morality. The strident calls for “deportation” are contrary to India’s long-held humanitarian principles, including our cherished belief in vasudhaiva kutumbakam.

    The Rohingyas clearly face a threat to life and are not recognised as citizens in Myanmar. Deportation thus is a move that could endanger their lives and is also in violation of the international law of non-refoulement. One of the key conditions for repatriation is the grant of full citizenship — and not “residency” or “certificates of identity “as is being offered to the Rohingyas.

    One might ask why India should be hospitable to a group of refugees whose own country has disowned them. The answer lies in our ancient culture and in India’s traditional humanitarian approach to refugees from times immemorial. The Mahabharata as well as Jataka recount the example of Chakravarti Shibi, a worthy descendant of Bharat and an ancestor of Lord Ram, who offers refuge to a dove from a hawk that wished to eat it. To honour his word to protect all those who seek refuge, the noble Chakravarti offered his own flesh in place of the dove when the hawk claimed that the bird was its food and was needed to nourish his own body and that of his family and that he too as a subject seeks justice from the noble king. The king, realising his obligation, offered his own life to uphold dharma. Today India faces a similar test where one must choose between what is righteous and in accordance with our dharma and Bharatiya Samskriti.

    The answer also lies in India’s responsibility as a member of the international community, as a democracy, and as an aspiring global leader. It can also show the West that the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is not something that is to be merely spoken of within the confines of ivory towers, but is about defending and protecting people’s right to life and dignity. India has always walked the talk in standing up for the weak and oppressed since times immemorial.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. “Statement by H.E. Mr. Ajit Kumar, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the UN during the General Debate”, 66th Session of Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Permanent Mission of India, Geneva, October 07, 2015, at