The Indian government has raised eyebrows after its pledge to deport hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims seeking shelter in the country.
An estimated 40,000 refugees are currently living as illegal immigrants in India despite being registered with the United Nations refugee agency, about 16,500 of which have been provided with identification cards by the UNHCR to “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation.”
However, junior interior minister Kiren Rijiju said in an interview that registration with the UNHCR is irrelevant after he ordered the identification and deportation of all illegal immigrants. “They are doing it, we can’t stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees,” Rijiju 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.”
According to UNHCR’s office in India, customary law requires that India acts in accordance with the principle of non-refoulment–or not sending back refugees or asylum seekers back to a country in which they are likely to face persecution–regardless of its signatory status.
The treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has emerged as one of the most concerning human rights issues, with reports often citing them as the most persecuted minority in the world. Nearly one million Rohingya who live in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have been denied citizenship despite their claiming roots in the country and face abuses at the hand of security forces. Communal violence and discrimination have led hundreds of thousands to flee the country, many of whom have found refuge in the neighboring country of Bangladesh. Others have crossed the border into India, a Hindu-majority country led by Prime Minister Modi who has pushed for a nationalist Hindu government.
Many Rohingya Muslims in India have faced pushback, as anti-Rohingya protests have broken out in the past few months in the country. In Bangladesh, an influx of over 75,000 refugees since Oct. 9 led to a security crackdown in which troops were accused of murder and rape of Rohingya civilians.
Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay, said that the government has yet to receive any official word from the Indian government of the planned deportations and that so far only a Myanmar ambassador was notified.
A deputy spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said a plan to send refugees back to a country where they have faced incessant persecution raises concerns.
Rights activists also said deportation of Rohingya back to Myanmar was alarming.
“Instead of deportations, India should be discussing the issue with Myanmar and Bangladesh with a view to resolving the situation in Rakhine state, ending discrimination, and holding soldiers accountable,” Meenakshi Ganguly, director for South Asia’s Human Rights Watch, said. “India should be showing leadership in protecting rights, and has the responsibility now to ensure the safety of the Rohingya refugees who have sought shelter in India.”