Sunday, April 22, 2012

India's tragic Rohingyas

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ELIZABETH JACKSON: Aung San Suu Kyi will take her seat in Burma's parliament for the first time on Monday.

The first steps towards democratic reform has seen a number of countries, including the US and Australia, ease sanctions.

But conditions for ethnic minorities have improved little and activists say closer ties with the military junta should be conditional on an improvement in their human rights.

Our India correspondent Richard Lindell reports from a refugee camp in New Delhi.

RICHARD LINDELL: I'm here in the middle of a makeshift refugee camp in one of the capital's most exclusive suburbs.

Vasant Vihar is home to some of Delhi's richest people, as well as diplomats and embassies.

But over the past two weeks, a growing number of Burmese Muslim asylum seekers, known as Rohingyas, have also moved in.

The headquarters of the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), is also here right in front of me and 700 people are crammed into this alley to protest against their treatment.

Conditions are miserable.

Flies outnumber people by a big margin and there's no water or sanitation.

Many people here are sick and as I step in and around the mass of people, I hear the raking coughs of tuberculosis.

(Child coughing)

As I walk I meet Jamila sobbing and distressed. Her husband and two of her three children have TB.

(Jamila speaking)

"My husband is vomiting blood" she says. "I have been begging around for help, even for 1 rupee, because my husband is suffering."

As she tells me about her escape from Burma a year ago, I see tears well up in the men and women around me.

For this is her story, but the tales of rape, torture and abuse are also theirs.

(Jamila speaking)

"There is a lot of persecution against us" she says. "Mothers and sisters have to endure atrocities from the military junta. We women are not safe there. When our kids walk to school, as young as 8-years-old, the military simply pick them off the streets to work as forced labour."

The Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship by Burma's military junta 30 years ago.

Their land was seized and those that remain live in fear.

Faiz Ahmed and his wife fled Burma a year ago to the largely Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir in India's north.

They say they've been denied access to healthcare and education; basic rights afforded to all refugees in India.

Like everyone else here, Faiz blames the UN's peak refugee agency, the UNHCR.

(Faiz Ahmed speaking)

"I want to ask UNHCR why refugees from other countries get facilities but why we, the Burmese refugees, do not?"

Naina Bose from the UNHCR says camping and protesting here is not helping their cause.

NAINA BOSE: We just would like the people outside to go back to where they came from. I don't want them to put themselves through what they're going through. We have extreme weather conditions here, there are women and children in that group. And we will continue to dialoguing with them; but it's not possible with a crowd of 700 people outside.

RICHARD LINDELL: The UNHCR has classified the Rohingya as asylum seekers not refugees.

Naina Bose rejects the core allegation of discrimination made by the Rohingyas.

NAINA BOSE: This is a country where we do not have a national legal framework and India has not signed the convention. It is commonplace to treat different refugee groups differently.

For us the core issue remains protection; how best can we protect these people? So by registering them as asylum seekers we believe that we are fulfilling our core mandate of protection. By giving them asylum seeker cards they will not be arbitrarily deported or sent back.

RICHARD LINDELL: The issue for these people is not one of classification but of access.

Unlike the Afghan refugees of the north or the Sri Lankan Tamils of the south, Rohingyas have no cultural or historical ties to India.

So while the national government mandates healthcare and education to all, the Rohingyas are often turned away by providers because they have no one to champion their cause.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy, from the school of international studies at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University).

KAMAL MITRA CHENOY: It's basically a question of connections. If there are connections with the Progressive Schools Association, then they'll get schooling. If there are government schools, good government schools then there's a lot of pressure from Indian applicants to take their children.

Then it really depends on what leverage the Rohingyas have. And it's something that the UNHCR on its own is not equipped to do.

RICHARD LINDELL: The UNHCR has registered 1,800 Rohingyas as asylum seekers in India.

Hundreds of thousands more have fled to Bangladesh over the past three decades.

Conditions there are miserable and malnutrition is rife.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy again.

KAMAL MITRA CHENOY: They're almost a forgotten people. There is no public support for them because people don't know about them; the press doesn't write about them. So unless there is substantial international pressure, the liberalisation that has taken place because of Aung San Suu Kyi is because of her following and her reputation.

But the Rohingyas have no charismatic leader like that. So I don't expect there to be any substantial or significant improvement in their case until countries like the United States or the European Union and all take it up.

RICHARD LINDELL: The US, Australia and others are now relaxing sanctions on Burma; a reward for progress towards democratic reform.

The international community says it will continue to raise human rights issues, including the plight of minorities.

Back at the camp in New Delhi, the Rohingyas say that sanctions relief should be tied to human rights and citizenship in Burma for their people.

Otherwise they fear being condemned to a future as stateless people without rights and any hope of returning home.

This is Richard Lindell in New Delhi for Correspondents Report.

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