CHENNAI: Some 90 Rohingyas huddle in one two-storeyed building in Keelambakkam in Chennai, living the life of stateless people and waiting anxiously for the outcome of the international outcry over the massacre of the minority in Myanmar.
With the Indian government declaring its intention to send back all refugees who have no papers, these Rohingya families face an uncertain future. Their refrain is that they’d rather die here than go back to Myanmar.
Are these the last rains?
“Some people are bad and some people are good; that’s with every community,” a 24-year old Rohingya refugee says as he erects a tent outside a dilapidated two-storeyed building on the Kelambakkam-Vandalur road on the outskirts of Chennai. The tent shelters the hearth on which his family will cook its food.
Thousands of miles away from home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, 93 Rohingyas have been living in this crumbling building under the protection of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) since their arrival in 2012.
Muhammad Yousuf, a 28-year-old refugee who used to sell groceries in his hometown before fleeing Myanmar, points to the workers erecting tents and says, “We are preparing for the rainy season.”
He is unaware that this year’s rains may well be the last they will witness in India. The central government does not want them here. In a 15-page affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on Monday, New Delhi said, “Continuance of the Rohingyas’ illegal immigration into India and their continued stay in India, apart from being absolutely illegal, is found to be having serious national security ramifications and has serious security threats.”
‘This is home. Our children speak Tamil’
Yousuf agrees that the Rohingyas living in this shabby building have no legal documents but he cannot imagine that any of them are a threat to the nation’s security. “This place has become home to us. Twenty-three of our children go to the government school here and speak Tamil fluently,” he says.
Many of the Rohingyas here have smartphones and it’s anybody’s guess how they came to have SIM cards. “Some of our brothers here have two SIM cards and they gave us one to use,” Yousuf explains.
Many of the refugees lodged here do not deny they got themselves smartphones. It’s a necessity. “We speak to people back in Burma via IMO. So some of us have smartphones,” explains a 24-year-old youth who studied in a madrasa in Myanmar before coming to India.
“All of us have identity proof as citizens of Burma but to go back would mean a horrific death. We have seen the Myanmar army chop off the body parts of our people. It is better to burn us down here rather than send us back,” he adds.
From Cox Bazar to Kovalam
The central government in its affidavit has raised concerns about the influx of refugees across India’s porous border with Myanmar. “There is an organised influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar through agents and touts facilitating illegal immigrants Rohingyas into India via Benapole-Haridaspur, Hilli and Sonamura, Kolkata and Guwahati.”
Yousuf recalls his journey to India. He had to shell out all the money he had saved to pay agents and touts to get him here. “We had seven-day visas issued by the Burmese government. With it, we managed to reach Cox Bazar in Bangladesh. But we were not welcome there,” he said.
Cox Bazar, Yousuf recalls, is full of agents who swarm the refugees as they arrive, reeling off a list of destinations to settle in. They include Pakistan, India and Nepal. “When my family and I landed in Bangladesh, several agents approached us. We did not know any of them. They asked us whether we want to go to Pakistan, India or Nepal. Each country had a different price. India was the cheapest. We felt it would be safer and so we paid almost one lakh in Burmese currency to an agent who helped us reach here,” Yousuf said.
“At that time we did not know we were going to Chennai. We reached the Indo-Bangladesh border on a bus and from there we were ferried by boat to Kolkata. There, another agent got us aboard a train, and we reached Chennai. We just wanted to escape, we did not know where we were going,” he adds.
Yousuf said that some of the refugees who were apprehended in Kolkata have been sent to jail. The ones who managed to reach Chennai shifted camps a couple of times including setting up one near the Kovalam beach before being finally shifted here with the help of the UNHRC.