Wed 12 Sep 2012
Filed under: International,Opinion,Refugees
KOLKATA – Mr Nazir Ahmad made the trip from western Burma’s Rakhine State to India about two years ago after the military arrested his father and killed his brother, he said. But while he was given asylum, some of his relatives and neighbours ~ including children, he says ~ who followed on later were arrested in Malda as they waited for a train to Delhi to apply for refugee status. They were convicted under the Foreigners Act. Since December 2011, they have been in Behrampore Correctional Home and the children in a juvenile centre, he said.
Lawyers say the case once again reveals worrying gaps in India’s ad-hoc system for dealing with refugees which means those legitimately seeking safety from persecution elsewhere can end up jailed or pushed back over the border.
Mr Ahmad and his family are Rohingya Muslims, a community that has attracted increasing attention since deadly sectarian violence between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June left over 100,000 people displaced, according to Human Rights Watch. In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, said in a news release that the crisis reflects the long-standing and systemic discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim community. The country’s 1982 Citizenship Law ensures the group remain stateless, other laws limit their right to freedom of movement, education and work.
“In Burma we were not given citizenship,” Mr Ahmad said, who was a farmer there and now works as a daily labourer in Muzaffarnagar in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. When the Army took his family’s land, his brother went to them to complain. “My younger brother was shot by the Army. My father was taken away by the Army.”
He took a wooden boat to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and made his way to the border crossing at Benapole, heading first to Kolkata and then to Delhi where he was granted refugee status by UNHCR.
About six months after he left, some of his relatives and some children from his town, followed after him. “They were sitting at the railway station in Malda. Police asked them where they had come from and they told them they were coming from Burma via Bangladesh, and they were arrested.”
According to court documents, Mr Ahmad’s relatives were picked up by police in February 2011 after they received a call that some “Bangladeshis” were “moving suspiciously outside the railway booking area”.
Ten people were arrested, accused of being Bangladeshi nationals, and charged under Section 14 A(b) of the Foreigners Act, which deals with people who enter or stay in India without valid documents.
Mr Ahmad testified in court that one of those arrested, Ms Mahamuda, is his mother-in-law, and the other accused are her family. He also said they were from Myanmar, also known as Burma, and had come to India to seek refugee status in Delhi. The prosecution submitted that they were foreigners who had “failed to justify the presence into the Indian territory”. In December 2011, the judge convicted and sentenced them to imprisonment for two years and a fine of Rs 10,000 each.
Since then, Mr Ahmad has been trying to find a way to get his relatives out of jail and get them refugee status, he said. UN officials haven’t been able to help. “I told UNHCR but they said they couldn’t do anything so they didn’t.” Mr Ahmad’s family seem to be more examples of refugees who have “fallen between the tracks” because of India’s lack of a refugee law, said Mr Bhairav Acharya, a lawyer who has worked for many years on issues relating to refugees.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. So the fate of refugees here is often determined by the nature of India’s relations with the country they have come from, he said.
There is basically a “two-pronged approach”. Those from countries, or areas, with which the Indian government has a special relationship, like Tamils from Sri Lanka or Tibetans, are given a certain amount of government help.
People from other countries are left to apply directly to UNHCR either in Delhi or Chennai, he said, but you can’t do this from the border. “You have to travel all the way to Delhi and the reason is that India doesn’t have a refugee law, so there are no statutory provisions”. Many refugees are picked up en route, he said. “The journey from the border to Delhi… you take it at your own peril.”
If a refugee makes it to the Capital and gets a UNHCR card, it still doesn’t mean their status is completely clear. “Even if recognised as a refugee, because India does not officially recognise UNHCR, their cards are not really valid,” he said. “There is a general practice among Delhi police not to bother people with refugee cards but it is an uneasy situation.”
Mr Ahmad could file a writ petition before the High Court for his family, he said, but in general, the situation for refugees here is “pretty bleak.”