New Delhi: Amal Akhtar could not walk by herself. She sat up uncomfortably on a hard mattress and rested her back on a pillow and talked in a soft but firm voice.
She looked straight into my eyes, as she recalled life after she was born in Myanmar’s westernmost state of Rakhine—a lush land riven by insurgencies and brutalities—bordering the Bay of Bengal. She grew up and lived there for 12 years with her mother, brother and cousins.
Akhtar, now 25, had never seen anything beyond the sickle-shaped sliver of Rakhine because the Muslim Rohingya of Indo-Aryan origin—routinely discriminated against for not sharing ethnicity, religion or language with the majority Buddhist Burmans—were not allowed to travel beyond its boundaries.
Approximately 9,000 Rohingya were killed in a genocide that played out over 2016 and 2017 after decades of discrimination. Rohingya were forced into bonded labour, regularly tortured and many disappeared, as the US state department reported in 2018. Rohingya women were raped, brutalised and murdered. In 2017, the United Nations called them the world’s “most persecuted minority”.
Survivors have reported seeing babies impaled on steel rods being thrown into fires and adults shot.
As Akhtar spoke to me from her tarpaulin-roofed home without electricity in a fetid slum called Madanpur Khadar in south Delhi, she said the last time she saw her country and relatives was before she swam for over six hours to cross a river in October 2012 in search of refuge.
After a three-month journey, mostly on foot, she finally reached India in 2012, enduring further abuse and witnessing several other Rohingya women being trafficked, raped and killed.
“I have lived my entire life in conflict and fear,” said Akhtar. “The only thing I want from life is to live without fear. I want to live in peace.”
But now that Akhtar is in India, she must live, like thousands of other Rohingya, with being called a terrorist, a termite or a security risk, terms used by politicians, the government and the media, and under constant fear of being detained and imprisoned without cause, explanation or legal recourse.
In January 2020, after her husband abandoned her, Akhtar was picked up by the police from Madanpur Khadar and sent to detention. She described how she was denied edible food, adequate medical treatment and legal assistance during 14 months in detention.
“I was released from detention when I was almost unconscious. I could not move or even recognise my mother,” said Akhtar. “Even now, I cannot move without support… I only hope that I can stay with my mother, and they do not detain me again.”
India Will Not Recognise Rohingya As Refugees
On 22 September 2022, the union government—refusing to provide documentation for a Rohingya woman and her children trying to join their father in the US—told the high court of Delhi that Rohingya refugees living in India “were seriously undermining the country’s national security”.
In 2018, claiming the Rohingya had links to “terror organisations”, the government of prime minister Narendra Modi told the Supreme Court: “The court has no business to interfere in such matters of what they call illegal immigrants or illegal migrants.”
With no evidence, television channels and media allied with the government have amplified allegations (here, here and here) that the Rohingya were linked to terrorism and were security threats.
This narrative has contributed, as many have observed, to the systematic criminalisation of the Rohingya, even as India says it will deport refugees as illegal immigrants who do not hold valid travel documents, even though deportation violates the international legal principle of non-refoulement, under which countries may not return refugees to countries where they face harm or persecution.
Since India is not a party to the United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and its 1967 Protocol, its refugee protection obligations are limited, as lawyer Malvika Prasad wrote in Article 14 in February 2020.
But non-refoulement is regarded as established global law binding on all countries, and the Rohingya are recognised as asylum seekers and refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
India is also a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, the Child Rights Convention 1989, and various other instruments that make clear rights for detenus, especially women and children.
Instead, India appears to be violating both global and national laws, with even minors held, as I found and as Article 14 reported in January 2022, at a detention centre called Sewa Kendra in the northwest Delhi suburb of Shahzada Bagh.
Grim Conditions Inside Detention Centre
About a km from Delhi’s Shastri Nagar and Inderlok metro stations, in a narrow lane in Shahzada Bagh, is a dilapidated building with closed windows. There is no visible board outside, and the building is secured by armed guards. This is the Sewa Kendra.
Inside are detained an unknown number of Rohingya refugees who escaped the conflict in Myanmar and reached India, as Akhtar once was. Like Akhtar, other Rohingya were also picked up arbitrarily from their camps in Madanpur Khadar and Vikaspuri and have been indefinitely lodged in the detention centre.
It is impossible to know the conditions inside the detention centre because the government does not allow in anyone except officials: not lawyers, not the media. The detention centre in Delhi is one of approximately 10 nationwide.
Repeated applications to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), from lawyers to meet clients in the detention centre in Delhi have been ignored. Informally, an FRRO official said detenues had “all the necessary facilities” and needed no lawyers.
The refusal to allow any oversight or legal assistance likely stems from a past record of conditions that violate India’s own rules and laws regarding detention, apart from a host of global agreements—many to which India is a signatory—on humane treatment of refugees.
But conversations with five Rohingya refugees previously in detention revealed that the building was overcrowded and unhygienic, they suffered rough treatment, lack of medical attention and verbal abuse and were forced into manual labour for no pay.
Released from detention when their health deteriorated, they narrated their experiences from the ramshackle refugee camps of Madanpur Khadar and Vikaspuri, where they now live.
Former inmates talked of struggling to sleep, with many packed into rooms. The grilled windows were closed and covered with cardboard. No sunlight seeped in, and it was hard to tell day from night.
Men and women were segregated, and there was one “very small”, common dining area, former detenus said. They cleaned the building themselves, including dirty toilets, and officials frequently insulted and humiliated them, detenus alleged.
Every night, between 10 pm and 7 am, the rooms were locked, opened only once at midnight to use toilets, said the detenus. Some detainees had urinary problems, and were yelled at if they asked to use the toilets. Women and children often relieved themselves inside the rooms, which stayed that way until morning.
Farzana Rehman, 19, a pale and an extremely weak woman, could not walk without support ever since she was released after 15 months in detention, experiencing several medical complications, including temporary paralysis.
Rehman’s voice quivered with anxiety as she recalled her time in detention.
‘They Said I Was Only Acting’
Most Rohingya detenus suffered medical problems, and though doctors visited the detention centre, they only ensured that nobody died, alleged Rehman. Those who were critically ill were taken to hospital.
Many detenus only speak Ruáingga, a language related to Bengali, and requests to take along another Rohingya who spoke Hindi was always denied, said Rehman.
“When I cried in pain, the officials said that I was only acting, and that I was worse than an animal, and Rohingyas deserve no care,” said Rehman.
Mohammad Imran Akhtar, 30, who was in detention for nearly two years alleged that when he was taken to a hospital—handcuffed—for medical treatment, officials did not let him talk about his health issues.
He alleged accompanying officials told doctors that he was a qaidi (convict) and a ghuspethiya (intruder). Doctors did not say much and provided minimal treatment, he said.
Tall and able-bodied, Mohammed Akhtar now shares a room with six other Rohingya men in Vikaspuri. Police had told him, he said, that if he stepped out of Vikaspuri, he would be sent back to detention.
Mohammad Akhtar said there was no running water in the detention centre. Detenus were required to fill buckets from a tap outside. The men managed, but many women struggled to carry the buckets.
The rooms, said Mohammad Akhtar, had no ventilation, were suffocating in summer, with fans barely working. In winters they were given two blankets each and no warm clothes. They bathed in cold water and children, in particular, fell ill, said detenus.
“The centre had no space to freely move around and we were always in confinement,” said Mohammad Akhtar.
‘I Would Scream & Cry & Scratch The Walls’
Farzana Rahman, 20, grew visibly tense and her voice became anxious when she recalled her days in detention with her brother. She described how children were not allowed an education, had no place to play or study and often got blisters on their mouth and body.
The food, alleged Rahman, was rotten. “Nobody can eat that food,” she said, “When detenus begged for “edible food”, which they did often, they were abused and called keere (pests).”
“Sometimes, I would scream and cry and scratch the walls, begging to only breathe some fresh air and eat some fresh food,” said Rahman. But when the officials further threatened her, “I bent down and apologised. They forgave me then”.
Mohammad Habib Khan, 22, another able-bodied man without a job living in Vikaspuri, said he was in constant fear of being detained again, after nearly 24 months in detention.
None of the detenus understood why they were detained when they had committed no crime. All the detenus I spoke to were recognised as refugees under the UNHCR, with identity cards issued by the UN.
Khan said government and UNHCR officials, whom they meet often, warned them that if they approached the courts, they would get into more trouble.
“They let us out of detention just before we were about to die,” said Khan. “They did not want our dead bodies.”
Endless Waits, Capricious Officials
Rohingyas at the detention centre are sometimes allowed to meet their relatives living in refugee camps, but permission depends entirely on the whims of FRRO officials, said families.
Relatives describe having to wait for several hours to meet detenus. Often, despite several hours of waiting, permission was not given.
Even infants were, often, disallowed from meeting mothers in detention. Relatives report being allowed to leave some fruit for detenus but after thorough and humiliating checks.
When they did meet, conversations were monitored and they were allowed to speak only in Hindi, families said.
Many detainees, especially women, do not have close relatives in Delhi, which makes them liable to being detained longer because they have no one to speak for them and advocate for their release.
Many Rohingya women continue to be trafficked from other countries for sex work, bonded labour and even for marriage, Al Jazeera reported in 8 May 2019.
When police found these women, instead of rescuing and protecting them and prosecuting traffickers, women were subjected to further trauma at the detention centre, IndiaSpend reported on 19 April 2022.
India’s Hostility Towards The Rohingya
The UNHCR has documented about 17,000 Rohingya refugees in India, but many more are unregistered because of official hostility, in particular towards Muslim refugees, and the prospect of deportation.
Rohingya leaders attribute the difficulties they endure to the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which considers the Rohingya not refugees but illegal immigrants.
While India has sheltered many Rohingya, who were thus potentially saved from being hacked to death—about 24,000 were brutalised during systemic episodes of bloodletting in their homeland—the lack of rights as unrecognised refugees is a constant threat.
The exclusion of the Rohingya from India’s civil documentation process deprives them of access to basic services, such as health and education, said a November 2020 report from the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, an advocacy group based in the Netherlands, in association with UN Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume.
These exclusions are in contrast to recent inclusions and protections that India intends to offer non-Muslim migrant groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
As Article 14 reported in January 2020, India excludes Rohingya refugees from essential identity documents, such as Aadhaar, the national identity number but collects biometric data from refugees to aid surveillance and possible deportation.
Refugees who lack documents are provided long-term visas to live in India, but since 2016-17 the government stopped issuing or renewing such visas to the Rohingya, worsening their already vulnerable situation.
The disregard for refugees, the November 2020 report previously mentioned said, “puts most refugees and asylum seekers residing in India, including Rohingyas, at risk of arrest and deportation”.
Battling Their Own & The UNHCR
Rohingya refugees who live in several squalid camps across India often report sleepless nights and anxiety for fear of being picked up during random police raids in various cities (here, here and here).
In Delhi, Rohingya without connections within the UNHCR report constant harassment and intimidation from their own community leaders within the camps. It is these leaders, mostly men, who largely do not appreciate the problems faced by women but usually represent them before the UNHCR.
“In times of uncertainty, we do not know who we should seek help from,” said Raheem Khan, a 30-year-old Rohingya man. “The UNHCR is like our parents when we have lost everything and sought asylum in another country.”
“But they (UNHCR) do not listen to the Rohingyas at all,” said Raheem Khan. “The helpline number only rings and is never answered.”
A UNHCR official informally told Article 14 that they were approaching the situation through “advocacy” with the government. She said: “Refugees tend to exaggerate sometimes to get out of detention at any cost.”
The UNHCR faced criticism in November 2019, most notably for sharing refugee status, biometrics and other details of Uyghur Muslims with China, leading to reprisals against families and friends. In June 2021, private data of the Rohingya refugees were apparently divulged to Bangladesh by the UNHCR.
Detention Centre Violates India’s Own Laws
Conditions within the detention camps violate the government’s own directives on conditions in such camps, issued by the ministry of home affairs.
As per these directives, circulated to all states and union territories on 9 January 2019, detention centres must have conditions that are in “consonance with human dignity”.
The “model conditions” require detention centres to have basic amenities, including electricity, drinking water, hygiene, accommodation with beds, sufficient toilets with running water, communication facilities and kitchens. Special attention is supposed to be given to women, especially nursing mothers, and children.
It is mandatory, as per these directives, and the Right to Education under Article 21A of the Constitution of India, that all children in detention centres must be sent to the nearby schools.
Detention centres holding alleged foreigners and other ordinary prisons do not differ very much in terms of the amenities that they are required to provide prisoners, so provisions of the Model Prison Manual 2016 apply to detention centres.
The Prison Manual, which draws its principles from the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, says every prisoner has a “right to human dignity” and “shall not be treated as non persons”.
The Prison Manual has elaborate rules for the protection of health and care of women detainees.
The Manual specifically notes that the detention centres must be well lit with adequate space, ventilation and must have arrangements for heating water/milk. Detainees are entitled to fresh meals three times a day.
One of the most important rights in the manual is something the Rohingya are repeatedly denied: access to legal aid and representation. They have a right to know grounds for their detention and charges against them. This is mentioned in the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 and is a safeguard guaranteed under Article 22(1) of the Constitution.
All detenus also have the right to write letters and meet relatives. When they are ill, they can be accompanied to the hospital by a fellow relative with them.
Unpaid labour and exploitation of the detenues inside the centre amount to bonded labour, says Article 23 of the Constitution of India, a punishable form of modern slavery. The Model Prison Manual 2016 says detainees have a right to be paid a fair and minimum wage for the labour that they provide during detention.
A slew of international guidelines prescribe humane treatment for detenus in immigration detention centres: the United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment; UNHCR Detention guidelines; and the The Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which specifically lay down the right to healthcare of prisoners as a State responsibility.
There is little evidence any of these laws and guidelines are being followed at the Delhi detention centre.
(Ujjaini Chatterji is a lawyer based in New Delhi.)