JAMMU, India — It was around 3 a.m. when Abdul Kader was awoken by his children’s screams as flames spread through their corrugated iron and wood shack and dense smoke filled the air.
The 37-year-old burkha seller and his family escaped last month’s blaze unhurt, as did the six other Muslim Rohingya refugee families living there, but it has left the community in India’s northern city of Jammu fearful and on edge.
“The police said it was an electrical short circuit, but we think it wasn’t an accident,” said Kader, sitting on the floor of a madrasa in a slum in Jammu’s Narwal area.
“They don’t like us here and want us to leave. We were driven from Burma, then Bangladesh and now they want us to leave India. The situation is bad for us wherever we go.”
For almost a decade, India has been a safe haven for thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma. Around 14,000 Rohingya live here, with half residing in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
But rising tensions with bordering Pakistan and a spike in separatist violence in neighbouring Kashmir, coupled with nationalist anti-Islamic sentiment globally, are threatening the Rohingya once again as demands grow for their eviction.
Right-wing political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, blame them for crime in Jammu, straining public resources, and claim they pose a threat to security.
As a result, India has started registering and monitoring the Rohingya, a move which activists fear could eventually force them back to Burma where they face atrocities, including murder, rape and arson attacks.
“Indian authorities know very well the abuses the Rohingya community have been facing in Myanmar,” said Amnesty International India’s Raghu Menon. “Deporting them and abandoning them to their fates would be unconscionable.”
Most persecuted community
Often described as the most persecuted community, the minority Rohingya have for years faced discrimination, repression and violence in northwestern Burma.
Denied citizenship by the largely Buddhist government since the 1990s, they face apartheid-like conditions. Hundreds have died in communal violence, and thousands have sought refuge in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.
Around 75,000 people have fled to Bangladesh just since October as the military cracks down on Rohingya insurgents.
Mass killings and gang rapes by the army in recent months have been documented, prompting the UN to claim this could be seen as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Some 7,000 Rohingya refugees live in Jammu, mostly residing in urban slums, eking out a meagre living selling garbage or doing manual work for Indians, often underpaid and exploited.
“They are extremely poor and settle wherever they find safety,” said Suvendu Rout from ACCESS, a Delhi charity providing Rohingya refugees with literacy and skills training.
“Many are construction workers and are contributing to building India’s infrastructure, while others collect rubbish, which helps keep our cities clean.”
But a contrasting narrative is being spun in J&K, a troubled state that is disputed by bordering Pakistan, and where a separatist insurgency has simmered for almost three decades.
Over the last six months, Jammu has witnessed a string of anti-Rohingya public protests by political parties, Hindu groups, student bodies and the business community.
Billboards demanding refugees “Quit Jammu” have been put up, local media have branded them “parasites,” Rohingya effigies torched on the streets, and a petition filed in the High Court seeking their eviction from J&K.
Arun Gupta, spokesman for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also part of J&K’s coalition government, says public hostility toward them is growing.
“Jammu is a small place, and with this kind of influx, it is problematic. They are into a lot of illegal activities and since they are poor and idle, they are easily accessible to anti-national elements seeking to destablise Jammu,” said Gupta.
“Kashmir is already on boil. We do not want this to spread to Jammu. People here have started to realise this and believe these refugees should leave as of yesterday.”
Many advocating for the eviction even suggest rival Pakistan may be behind the Rohingya migration here, with the aim of stoking trouble but evidence to support these claims is scarce.
Police in Jammu, for example, say only 11 cases against Rohingya refugees have been registered in the last six years. These include illegal border crossing, rape and theft.
There have also been no cases or evidence to suggest links to separatist militancy in Kashmir, connections with Pakistan, or their involvement in Islamic radicalisation, the police add.
Political analysts say the Rohingya are getting caught up in two different, yet equally nasty undercurrents: a global wave of xenophobic sentiment and the local Indian and Pakistan dispute.
“Pakistan certainly has a history of meddling in Kashmir, and we can’t rule out the possibility that it would want to use the Rohingya to serve its interests in Kashmir,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the South Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre.
“But even if there’s something to these allegations, this doesn’t justify the draconian measures being called for against the entire Rohingya community, most of whom we can safely assume are perfectly law-abiding folks simply trying to make a living.”
Little protection for refugees
The home ministry has responded positively to the eviction demands and last month directed all states to register and identify Rohingya refugees as a first step.
A home ministry official said after this identification process they would decide on the next step.
“Can’t really say at this stage if it will be deportation. They are Myanmar nationals who have come to India from Bangladesh. Diplomatic consultations are on with both Myanmar and Bangladesh about this,” the official said.
Those backing the deportation stress that India is under no legal obligation to provide the Rohingya refuge.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them. Nor does the country have a domestic law to protect the almost 210,000 refugees it currently hosts.
They also argue that Rohingya are technically “illegal,” pointing to Article 370 of the constitution, which gives J&K “special status” and prevents outsiders from permanent settlement.
Human rights groups disagree, saying deporting the refugees to Burma violates the internationally recognised principle of non-refoulement that forbids forcibly returning people to a country where they are at risk.
In the Rohingya slum in Jammu’s Narwal area, many feel the intensifying anti-Rohingya rhetoric is leading to hate crimes such as assaults or suspicious fires in their settlements.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says while India has not informed them of any change in policy toward the Rohingya, there are signs the space in Jammu is shrinking for them.
“A few Rohingya families have informed UNHCR they had to leave Jammu due to fear,” said the UNCHR in a statement, adding it was helping them resettle in other parts of India.
Madrasa teacher Kafayat Ullah Arkani, 32, says most have no choice but to stay in Jammu for the time being.
“If Rohingya commit crimes, then lock them up. Don’t punish an entire community by sending them to be massacred,” said Arkani. “We want to go home, but we can only go when it’s safe.”