Myanmar may be gradually embracing political reform. But for 31-year-old Nasir Udin, returning to his country of origin is not an option – at least not yet.
“I can only think of stepping foot in Myanmar once it becomes a democracy. We have suffered grave atrocities at the hands of our own people,” said Mr. Udin, who is a Rohingya, a Muslim minority in his native Myanmar.
Mr. Udin is one of around 2,500 Rohingya asylum seekers in India – many of them children and pregnant women – who were temporarily lodged in a makeshift camp set up in a patch of scrubland in the outskirts of New Delhi.
They gathered from around India in New Delhi last month to press the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to recognize them as refugees in the hope this would guarantee them access to medical facilities and schools for their children.
The living conditions in the camp, which was set up last week, were dire: Many had little more than plastic sheets propped up with branches as shelter and complained they didn’t have medicines to treat those who fell ill.
Despite the victory of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in recent by-elections – a development that prompted the international community to rethink economic sanctions on the country – none of the asylum seekers interviewed in the camp expressed any interest in returning to Myanmar.
For the time being, their concerns are more local: they want a better life here in India.
“Government hospitals don’t want to treat us, schools don’t want to admit our children, nobody wants to employ us,” says Nazir Ahmed, a 51-year-old Rohingya asylum seeker who arrived in India three years ago and takes care of five daughters, his wife and his mother. Despite the hardship, he categorically dismissed the possibility of returning to his country of origin: “I will never ever go back,” he said, likening that possibility to “jumping into fire.”
A significant step to improve the welfare of Rohingya people in India was made on Tuesday afternoon, when they were promised long-term stay visas in India.
UNHCR’s chief of mission, Montserrat Feixas Vihe, said in a statement she was confident this “will greatly increase their protection and safety in India.”
As asylum seekers, healthcare and education are services they are already entitled to in India, according to UNHCR. However, many Rohingya – especially those who are based outside Delhi – said local authorities often do not recognize this right.
While some members of the Rohingya community are still pushing for refugee status, many were satisfied with the visa agreement and were willing to return to their places of residence elsewhere in India.
However, even as talks with U.N. officials were ongoing, on Tuesday police dismantled their temporary dwellings in Delhi and forced them to leave. Rohingya asylum seekers had been complaining against police treatment ever since they settled there. For days, police did not allow them to leave the area, saying this was to ensure their safety, since they worried local residents would turn against them.
What rights asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to is a gray area because India does not have a comprehensive policy on refugees. New Delhi is not a signatory to the U.N. convention on refugees, nor does it have its own legal framework. As a result, rights and privileges vary depending on the community.
Rohingya are a stateless people. They come from Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, and look South Asian. This has made their acceptance in the country historically difficult. Three decades ago, the government of Myanmar made it clear that Rohingyas, along with other ethnic minorities, did not qualify for citizenship, effectively denying them most rights.
Many have escaped human rights abuses by fleeing to neighboring countries, with around 30,000 of them currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh alone, according to U.N. data. They started crossing over to India more recently, arriving in significant numbers in 2009.
Rohingya are just one of many Burmese groups that escaped the widespread repression of Myanmar’s military government. On top of the Rohingya asylum seekers, India currently hosts roughly 7,000 Burmese refugees. Most of them are ethnically Chin and settled in India’s northeast in the early 1990s, when there was a major exodus from Myanmar.
No Burmese refugees or asylum seekers in India – Rohingya, Chin or other – have turned to them to the U.N. them repatriate in recent months, according to UNHCR.
However, they are keeping an eye on political developments in their country of origin. “Refugees from Myanmar are following events in their country with great interest. It is too early to say what they feel— people are waiting and watching to see how developments unfold in the coming months,” says Nayana Bose, an officer at UNHCR in Delhi.
The recent Rohingya agitation in New Delhi comes as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is preparing to travel to Naypyitaw later this month, a trip that will test how India plans to deal with a reforming Myanmar.
Foreign governments and rights groups have called on India to take a bigger role in promoting democratic change in the Southeast Asian country.
“I think because of India’s democracy, India stands in a strong position to help the people of Burma as they look at a way to navigate their way forward with political and economic reforms,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week, speaking at an event in Kolkata.
Activists have similarly urged India to engage in the country’s democratic process. The Burma Centre Delhi, an Indian non-profit organization, called on Mr. Singh to address ethnic-based discrimination during his trip there. They said New Delhi could play a significant role in helping restore “the civil and democratic rights of the Rohingya” and in helping safely repatriate refugees.
Addressing the issue of Burmese refugees would be a chance for New Delhi to show that it is committed to a regional policy that goes beyond looking for investment opportunities, in keeping with its much-hyped “Look East” policy.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said the agenda for Mr. Singh’s three-day trip, which is set to start May 27, “has not yet been decided.”
– Preetika Rana contributed to this article.
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