The bamboo fenced tarpaulin tents, glass scraps, and the silence in the refugee camps, however, do not deter the children from pursuing their education.
Bengaluru: Somewhere in the middle of the IT hub in Bengaluru, a makeshift road diverts from the bustling city. The road leads to a row of tarpaulin tents hauled up by bamboo sticks. The shanties are barely visible behind heaps of garbage, glass bottles and other scraps carpeting the floor. A bamboo fence running along the huts separates the lives of Rohingya refugees living in the area.
“We have been here since 2012,” Mustafis Rehman, one of the refugees, said while pushing a small handcart — collecting scraps from the ground.
Mustafis limps, struggling to stand straight. The gunshot wound in his right leg is evocative of a past that most refugees here want to forget.
In 2012, Myanmar soldiers shot him in the leg and stabbed him in the neck below the right ear. Later he was abandoned amid a pile of dead bodies.
Luckily for Mustafis, his family members found him and carried him on a makeshift chair toward the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. After spending 15 days in the jungle surrounding the border, the family managed to escape into Bangladesh.
But today, the Rohingya refugees in Bengaluru are stuck in a Hobson’s choice, living in tiny shanties with no water or sanitation supplies. Persecuted in their native countries and discriminated against in India as “illegal migrants”, the refugees are biting the dust by earning a living as ragpickers. “At least we have a home,” Karimullah, one of the refugees said.
Refugees fight for survival
R. Kaleem Ullah, an activist and spokesperson of Swaraj Abhiyan Bangalore said 119 Rohingya refugees stay in Bengaluru, according to the data his NGO had surveyed last year.
However, on October 25, 2021, the Karnataka state government in an affidavit told the Supreme Court, “72 Rohingyas identified in Bengaluru City are working in various fields and Bengaluru City Police have not taken any coercive action against them as of now and there is no immediate plan of deporting them.”
Karimullah, his wife, five children, and two brothers live in a shanty that can barely fit three people. “After picking scraps the whole month, I earn Rs. 14000. But my house rent is Rs. 8000, and an additional Rs. 5000 for food. How will we survive?” he added.
The refugees live on agricultural lands, and the landlord doesn’t allow water tap connections or toilets fearing conversion of the land into slum dwellings — which makes it difficult to evict the refugees later.
Twice every week, the families contribute Rs. 1000 to book water tankers, but the supply is sporadic. Women walk over one kilometre every week to get fresh water for their daily chores, Victor*, another refugee said.
The families defecate and shower in the open.
“It often draws stares from people living nearby, but we have no other options. We have tried to install box toilets with the help of NGOs, but the landowner did not allow us,” Karimullah said.
This has also led to multiple incidents in the past, including gang rape and murder, Kaleem claimed, who has filed two complaints at Amruthahalli Police Station.
Human rights violations continue to happen in the camps. “A few weeks back, a gang of four had attempted to abduct a minor girl from the Rohingya camp in Mestripalya,” Kaleem said. The police have caught the suspects and the investigation is ongoing, he added.
On March 14, one of the refugees Sitara Begum died by suicide in the camp. Though families allege an internal family conflict, Kaleem said such incidents do not get reported at all.
No help from the UN or the government
The United Nations High Commission refugee card doesn’t provide the refugees with any solution other than the right to life. They travel 30 km to get medical facilities at Bowring and Lady Curzon hospital in Shivajinagar. “The nearby hospitals at Hebbal turn us away seeing our refugee cards,” Victor added.
All refugees living in Bengaluru have refugee cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees under the 1951 UN convention. The cards provide them with the Status of Refugees and serve both as an identity and a travel document. Kaleem said the refugees had their cards even before they had arrived in India and the refugee card helps* them to seek protection in a foreign country.
However, in 2021 the Indian government said, the country could not be the capital of illegal migrants and proposed the deportation of the Rohingya refugees while citing a threat to national security.
Questioning India’s stance, Advocate Prashant Bhushan representing the refugees had asked in Supreme Court, “how could India not respect the right to life and human rights of Rohingya and push them into Myanmar?”
In August 2017, the Indian central government had said the estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees living in India are illegal immigrants and will be deported. The centre also added that this includes the people who are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a report mentioned.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju had said the UNHCR registration was irrelevant. “They [UNHCR] are doing it,” Rijiju said. “We cannot stop them from registering [the Rohingyas]. But we are not a signatory to the accord on refugees,” he said. “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported,” he added.
But, an office memorandum from the Ministry of Home Affairs dated October 20, 2014, had acknowledged the Tibetan refugees living in India and had offered a Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy. The memorandum said, “The Government of India has been having a series of discussions with the representatives of Dalai Lama’s Central Tibetan Relief Committee to address the problems of Tibetan refugees.” The policy had expanded lease agreements, benefits of central government schemes and state government benefits to the Tibetan refugees
India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework, a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report mentions. Across the nation, refugees are not allowed to get a permanent job or get admitted to educational institutes with their refugee cards.
Shankar Prasad, Assistant Professor, Public Administration at Jain University believes if the government creates opportunities for the Rohingyas, people will start demanding the same for all slum-dwellers across India, he said.
Already caught in a political void, the Rohingya refugees in Bengaluru feel anguished and cornered.
On Nov. 8, 2021, Victor emailed the United Nations office in New Delhi but got no response from them. Lack of funds and ration from the United Nations push the families to the brink of poverty.
Karimullah said the last time the refugees got ration from the United Nations was in July 2021. Each family got 20 kg of rice and three kilograms of pulses for two months. However, it only lasted a few weeks. “I spoke to several UN officials, but they have always disappointed us,” he added.
Dr. Vijaykumar, Special Officer, Secretary- General, United Nations (UN) India agreed to the plight of the refugees, however, said, the Secretary General has already sanctioned a fund for the refugees living in India. But the budget is pending with the Union government. “We had scheduled more than four meetings over the past six months, yet the Indian government has stalled the meets every time,” he added.
Giving birth in the camps
Beginning of March, Raziya and her family of four had travelled from Bangladesh to Bengaluru to start their lives afresh. However, she gave birth on the train, and now the 24-day-old child is growing up malnourished inside the refugee camp.
My husband does not know any of the Indian languages and is difficult for him to find a job in Bengaluru, Raziya said. Getting two meals a day is hard for us, how will we provide our babies with the nutrition they require? she added.
More than five refugee women living in the camp are pregnant. One of the pregnant women, Shamsa Niha said last month she had managed to get a check-up done at Yelahanka government hospital. “I spent Rs. 120 for the check-up and Rs. 400 for travel. My husband earns Rs. 2000 monthly. I would better not have check-ups done,” she added.
With a lack of sanitation facilities, the pregnant women use the jungle behind their camp. The women are already feeling the burden of the pregnancy, coupled with a lack of nutrition. Raziya complains of severe stomach aches, while Rehna can barely walk outside of her shanty.
Recently, Laila Begum gave birth to twins who are growing up malnourished because the family has no means to buy food for them. Her husband, a ragpicker, earns Rs. 5000 a month that helps the family of four to earn two square meals a day and also pay the rent.
More than 50 percent of children living in the area suffer from malnutrition, activists Thomas Mathew and R. Kaleem, who surveyed them found last year.
Officials at the Department of Food and Civil Supplies said they did not receive any notification from the government regarding malnutrition in Rohingya children.
Kaleem said the Karnataka Child Rights Commission had visited the camp eight months back, however, that was the last time they saw any NGOs or government bodies coming to the camp.
More than 1901 km away from Myanmar, conversion continues
Kaleem said, about 10 percent of all the refugees living in Bengaluru have converted to Christianity. Those who convert, get better facilities, especially in education, he added.
Decades back, a series of ethnic cleansing and forceful conversions have pushed the refugees into neighbouring countries. However, to continue to survive, they have no other option than to convert.
Mustafis’ brother, Levi Javed converted to Christianity a few years back. The missionary had helped him to study in Delhi and he completed his high school.
Victor who has also converted back in 2017, is currently pursuing nursing at a medical college in Bengaluru. Johar, another converted refugee from Bengaluru is studying at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.
Rohingyas are a very religious group of people, Kaleem said. At every camp in Bengaluru, they have constructed their own masjids where they offer namaz and read Holy Quran. However, those who convert get the opportunity to study after tenth standard. Some even get a job and can live comfortably, he added.
For others, their education is restricted to local Anganwadis. Today, Victor prefers to remain anonymous, fearing he will lose his education if people came to know about his refugee status.
Children living in the camps dream of a future
The fenced tarpaulin tents, metal scraps, and the silence in the camps, however, do not deter the children from pursuing their education.
At least four children, aged between eight and ten years, have approached the local school for education.
Yasin Arafat, 10, had visited a local government school requesting them for schooling. He was followed by Mohammad Riyaz, who said, “I went to the teacher and asked him if I can study. He said yes!”
The children in the camps want to grow up and not pick scraps anymore. Today, they learn English and Kannada. Yasin loves science and hopes to become an engineer someday.
She enrolled herself with the other kids at the local Anganwadi, and today trots to school every morning carrying a colourful red bag — a bag full of books and aspirations.
However, these children will probably never continue education after the Anganwadi, Kaleem said. Their parents are growing old, and refugees like Mustafis, who are already injured, cannot work forever. Their children will grow up and start picking scraps, he added.
Today, Karimullah still misses his home every day. He used to be a farmer back in Myanmar. We are the problem ourselves. We do not want any assistance from the UN or the governments. If they ask us to leave, we will go, he said.
*The article has been updated on May 24, 2022, to fix an error