Outside her cramped tin-roofed shanty, 15 kilometres from the Indian national capital, Noor Fathima, 30, prepares lunch for her children who wait expectantly. She stirs the khichdi with one hand, battling a swarm of flies and mosquitoes with the other. “Life back home was not so filthy,” she says, pointing to the squalor around.
Home for her is in the Arakan province in central Myanmar — one that Fathima, a Rohingya, fled in 2012 after her village was attacked by local Buddhists.
Victims of a long-standing ethnic conflict, the Rohingyas have been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government on the grounds that they are Bengali Muslims, who were brought in illegally by the British from India and Bangladesh. They are allegedly subjected to forced labour and denied land rights by the Buddhist majority. Some human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
For decades, Rohingyas have been fleeing Myanmar, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In recent years, with these countries cracking down on illegal migrants, there are reports of Rohingya refugees being abandoned mid-sea by smugglers.
The most recent humanitarian crisis, centred on the Rohingyas, to hit international headlines was in May this year, when a boat carrying 130 refugees sank off the border between Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Fathima’s husband Mohammed Haroon says they were lucky to escape when they did. Once a prosperous farmer, he says his family was routinely harassed by local Buddhists and the military.
“My grandfather was a supporter of General Suu Kyi, so when the military came to power, they kept an eye on our family,” says Haroon. “They would tell us that we had no business living there. Local Buddhists would walk into our farm and take away chicken and livestock.”
Haroon made his peace with the harassment coming their way, until the military took over his land and occupied his home. “I had 37 bighas of land. I lost it overnight.” He approached higher officials for justice but faced with threats, he decided to leave with his family.
After a few months in Bangladesh, they eventually found their way to Saharanpur in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. A year later, they were resettled in Kalindi Kunj, near New Delhi, by the Zakat Foundation of India. Called Darul Hijrat, there are 50 families living here in a makeshift colony of tin-and-plastic shanties.
“We had reserved the land to build a school for poor children,” says Imtiaz Siddique, a project director with ZFI, an NGO that collects zakat or alms for relief purposes. “But when we heard about the plight of the Rohingyas, we decided to house them there.”
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, there are over 25,000 Rohingyas settled in colonies like these in different parts of India, mainly Telengana in the south, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.
Surrounded by dense forests, the colony is in a low-lying area and gets flooded in the monsoon. With the assistance of UN funds, the ZFI has made some structural improvements, and yet, their protection against heavy rain and biting winters is inadequate. There are just two hand pumps supplying water to a colony of 250 people. There is electricity, but it is illegally tapped.
“The water quality is poor and children are always falling sick,” says Fathima. There are no toilets, so families use the surrounding fields. Death due to snakebite is common. Again, the most vulnerable are the children — three infants have died in the last eight months. The lack of a doctor or a health centre close at hand leaves families even more vulnerable in the event of a medical emergency. The nearest hospital is about 10km away.
Despite the hardships, there is much hope that they can look forward to a better future. The ZFI has enrolled the children in a local school and is sponsoring their education. The men have found employment in construction sites.
“Our children are finally going to school, we get three meals a day and sleep without having to worry about the military taking away our sons and daughters,” says Fathima. “It’s more than what we can ask for.”
This sentiment is reinforced every time they speak to family and friends back home.
“Friends in Myanmar tell me they are scared to step out of their homes,” says Abdul Karim, who works with the UNHCR’s liaison staff. “We hear that Muslims are not allowed to pray and mosques have been shut down. Now with the world closing its doors, they are well and truly stuck. Myanmar does not want the Rohingyas and the world too, it seems, is shutting its doors on us.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015