By Shuriah Niazi
NEW DELHI, India (AA) - Seven-year-old Aayan plays with other children in a camp for Rohingya refugees in Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi, India’s capital.
His father, Mohammad Zahir, 40, is sitting nearby on a crumbly cot with some other residents. Zahir makes ends meet by selling vegetables on the roadside. He lives with his wife and two children -- Aayan and his younger sister, 4-year-old Fatimah -- in a makeshift shanty that leaks badly when it rains.
Zahir and other residents of the camp are living in abominable conditions. Houseflies and mosquitoes abound in the filthy environs of their slum, which lacks electricity or a drainage system. Many people in the camp, including children, recently fell victim to vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. But that is hardly an issue of concern for them. Staying alive is the biggest challenge for the members of a community that has for years seen only persecution and massacre in Myanmar.
"My wife Shaheen suffers from TB," said Zahir, referring to tuberculosis. "But it doesn't matter. Many other residents of this camp suffer from various ailments. But we’re happy as long as the government of India allows us to live in this country and doesn’t deport us back to Myanmar."
But the Rohingya community is gripped with fear as Indian authorities have been claiming that the Rohingya are a "security threat" and will be sent back to Myanmar.
Mushtaq, another resident of the Kalindi Kunj refugee camp, said they live in perpetual fear of deportation.
"We're living in constant dread,” he explained. “The government says we’re a threat to national security although we live here peacefully and don’t indulge in any criminal or anti-national activity. We see India as a friendly nation, and the people of this country are very helpful and friendly.
“But the government has refused to grant us refugee status and is bent on deporting us. We're not able to sleep peacefully."
Mushtaq's wife Asma said: "We have our friends and relatives in Myanmar. We remember them and worry about their safety. We don't know whether they're alive or not."
The Rohingya are an ethnic group, most of them Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the Rakhine (previously Arakan) region of northern Myanmar, which is widely thought to be the original home of the Rohingya.
The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.
According to Amnesty International, after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community on Aug. 25 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women, and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.
Since that day, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya took refuge in India over several decades. There are around 1,000 Rohingya living in Delhi.
Rohingya have settled in informal slum-like squatter camps in cities like Jammu, Delhi, and Jaipur, living in unhygienic conditions and surviving through casual construction work. In another Rohingya camp in Delhi’s JJ Colony, where about 25-30 Rohingya families live, the noise of children playing and women talking and laughing would make you feel that the people living here are quite content. But when you talk to them, you realize that anxiety grips them like their fellow community members residing in Kalindi Kunj and elsewhere in India.
Tayyab Hussein, 35, runs a small grocery shop to support his wife and two children.
"I arrived in India in 2012 with my wife and son. My second son was born here," he said. "We left Myanmar just to save our lives. The conditions here were also dire. We’re grateful to India for giving us the refuge, but we will most certainly face human rights violations and imprisonment if we were sent back to Myanmar."
Tayyab, like other Rohingya in India, is deeply worried about the deportation threat. India has been accepting Rohingya refugees and permitting them to live in various parts of the country over the years, particularly after the communal violence in Rakhine in 2012. However, India views the refugee crisis as an internal matter of Myanmar.
In August 2017, Kiren Rijiju, then-India’s union minister of state for home affairs, said the central government had asked the governments of the states where Rohingya live to set up task forces to identify and deport the Rohingya living illegally in their respective states.
About 16,500 Rohingya refugees in India possess identity cards issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But since India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, refugee status granted by the UNHCR is irrelevant, and Indian authorities do not recognize the UNHCR-issued refugee cards of Rohingya, so they do not get any legal protection or access to facilities in India.
At present, the fate of Rohingya living in India hangs in the balance. The Indian authorities are believed to have talked to the Myanmar government and its military authorities and advised them to bring back Rohingya as early as possible.
Bangladesh's Foreign Minister AK Momen said earlier this month that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is expected to visit India in October to discuss several issues, including the Rohingya crisis.
"New Delhi has communicated to Dhaka that the repatriation process should begin quickly. I am convinced that the process of repatriation of Rohingya will commence soon," he said.
This January, India sparked fear among its Rohingya refugees by deporting a family of five to Myanmar. This expulsion came on the heels of the contentious forced repatriation of seven Rohingya men last October.
Most of the Rohingya came to India either before 2012 or following that year's violence in Myanmar -- well before the 2017 genocide. At the time, many refugee children were permitted to attend school, and some areas even offered basic help.
But the attitude towards minorities changed after the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the national election in 2014 with a strong majority and Narendra Modi took charge of the country as prime minister.