Complacent and Complicit: India's role in the Rohingya refugee crisis
Yesterday was International Refugee Day - but how many of us are aware of India's stance on the refugee crisis happening in its backyard?
In August 2017, the Indian government stated its intent to deport the 40,000 Rohingya refugees seeking asylum within its borders. The Supreme Court is now hearing a petition brought forth by two Rohingya Refugees, requesting that this decision by the Central Government be stopped. However, the Centre has, predictably, responded with concerns of national security, echoing China’s position. This response came after the Human Rights Council’s September 2017 session, where the High Commissioner for Human Rights drew particular attention to the ‘appalling state of affairs’ within Rakhine, perpetrated by the Burmese military, styled as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). He once again underscored that the systematic operation against the Rohingya Muslim community constituted a crime against humanity and a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. It is no coincidence that this regressive stance comes from a government that rode an election platform on Hindu nationalism, and Muslim persecution. Juxtaposed with Bangladesh’s open-door, overwhelming response to the Rohingya refugee crisis, particularly when Bangladesh is already flooded with its own socio-economic turmoil, India’s tepid response to a humanitarian crisis seems like a refusal of the role of global relevance it claims for itself.
In the time since then, subsequent to August 25, 2017, more than 600,000 Rohingya people have been displaced from North Rakhine. South East Asia is facing a tremendous human rights crisis right now because of the discrimination and oppression of the Rohingya people.
The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised the need to urgently address the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. He stated, “the severity of the reported violations, against a backdrop of severe and longstanding persecution, appears to me to amount to possible commission of crimes against humanity, which warrants the attention of the International Criminal Court.” The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is continuing, and steeply escalating in violence between the Arakanese Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas. There has also been persistent pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to respond more effectively, and stop the flagrant human rights violations perpetrated by the state military. The Rakhine Advisory Commission has reported that successive governments have systematically stripped the Rohingya Muslims of their political, civil, and citizenship rights.
The Rohingya Refugee Crisis is an incident of mass migration of this particular populace of Myanmar and Bangladesh to other safe havens, in an attempt to escape persecution from the hands of the state government. Due to the blatant refusal of the Myanmar government to recognize the basic civil, political and human rights of the Rohingya population, many people of this community are facing hostility from other groups within the state and are unable to exercise any form of legal protection. This has forced thousands of this minority group to flee to neighboring countries in an attempt to find some sort of refuge.
The Rohingyas belong to an ethnic Muslim group that, according to one narrative, has lived for centuries in the Rakhine district in western Myanmar. Their history dates back to the early 7th century when Arab Muslim traders settled in that area. The counter narrative to this history of a long-established presence, most often claimed by the Buddhist extremists, is that the Rohingya are a group of people who have recently migrated from Bangladesh. The UN estimates that there are around 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar, which include people of Bengal heritage who settled centuries ago as well as all those people who have entered the country in recent years. The law in Myanmar considers as citizens only those who settled in the country before independence in 1948. All immigrants who arrived after that are officially considered illegal. Protracted violence and endless persecution forced around 200,00 Rohingyas to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in the 1980’s and the 90, where they lived in a number of unofficial and official camps. The Rohingyas have often been called the world’s most forgotten abused people; the international community has not been able to offer them adequate protection, nor relief from persecution over the years. Thus, it is said that the Rohingyas are both stateless and refugees. The rejection of citizenship rights, the lack of freedom of movement, the widespread forced labour, the removal of immovable assets, violence and torture contribute to making them stateless refugees.
International law provides a set of codified norms on the principle of political asylum and the protection of displaced and stateless persons; particularly within the 1951 Refugee Convention. India, however, is not party to the Refugee Convention, and therefore not bound by this treaty to accept Rohingya refugees. That being said, such an obligation does arise from a moral stance, a custom of accepting refugees, as well as from other international treaties and conventions India is a party to. However, India’s response has fallen short by far, of fulfilling these obligations. India’s Home Ministry recently suggested that the 40,000 Rohingya refugees that are seeking asylum within its borders pose a national security threat, and are looking to expel them en masse. We must, therefore, examine the nature of the obligations on India in the face of a burgeoning crisis in its own backyard. Considering that neither Myanmar nor India are signatories to the Refugee Convention, and in the face of the growing clout India holds in South East Asia, what are this country’s obligations to protect and prevent the large-scale human rights abuses that simply cannot be denied?
It cannot be denied – although we get a sense that India has shown intent to comply with global norms on refugee rights, it has not acceded to any of the international instruments that codify, beyond all doubts, refugee rights and the obligation on the state to grant asylum to politically displaced persons. The need of the hour is for India to cease persecuting persons seeking asylum within in borders, and to lend support and resources to Bangladesh as it is dealing with an influx of individuals greater than the nation can sustain. The unfettered and abusive military needs to be held accountable, and India needs to start filling its gaps in International Human Rights and Refugee Law.