New Delhi: On 17 October 2019, in a sprawling, ramshackle refugee camp in the south Bangladesh town of Cox’s Bazar, 43-year-old Mohammad Jaber received a telephone call from an officer of the Assam police in India.
His 15-year-old daughter, on whom he said he doted, had been found 600 km to the northeast in the Assam town of Silchar, two weeks after she went missing from their refugee camp. Jaber, his wife and five children had fled to the camp in 2017 after a genocide was perpetrated on the minority Muslim Rohingya by the army in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
“They (the Assam police) told me to come along with my passport to take her back,” Jaber told Article 14 in a telephone interview from Cox’s Bazar.
It is still unclear how Jaber’s daughter Rukhsana* (her name has been changed to protect her identity) reached Assam, whether she was trafficked or she ran away because, as she alleged, her father wanted to marry her to an older relative. Jaber denied this.
Jaber told the Indian officer he had no passport and no official documents, unlike other Rohingya refugees to whom Bangladesh has provided digital documentation and smart cards. Another Rohingya woman detained with Rukhsana, Jaber said, was reunited with her family because had such identification.
There was no further word about his daughter, except the occasional phone call facilitated by the Assam police.
“I have not been able to eat properly since then,” said Jaber. “I miss my daughter.”
The attempt to deport Rukshana, who has no links left to the land of her birth and has forgotten her native Ruáingga language, reflected India’s bureaucratic, insensitive approach to the teenager in particular and the Rohingya in general, said observers.
Whether Rukhsana ran away or not, she definitely did not want to return to Myanmar and sought reunion with her family, said workers at Nivedita Nari Sangastha (NNS), an Assam NGO that works with women and children and has sheltered the teenager for the last year and a half.
The Gates That Stayed Closed
On 30 March 2021—to much national and global criticism—officers of the Assam Police took Rukhsana to Moreh, a village on the Myanmar border in Manipur, to hand her over to border forces of India’s strife-torn neighbour.
The gate that marks the border between the two countries never opened.
“Her repatriation did not take place because of internal reasons in Myanmar,” Bhanwar Lal Meena, Superintendent of Police Cachar district Assam told Article 14 over the phone on 2 April.
That’s because the attempt to deport her came amidst a deadly army crackdown—which has claimed 500 lives—against widespread protests against the coup in Myanmar.
The police then travelled more than 36 hours to reach Silchar in southern Assam, where she was handed back to the NNS, which in March 2021 was told by the Assam government that she would be deported.
Rukhsana had pleaded that she be handed over to her father and family, but the Assam police argued they were following deportation “protocol” since her identity in their records was Myanmarese.
In attempting to deport Rukhsana, India ignored United Nations (UN) warnings of risk and appeals to halt the process.
“Returning the child to Myanmar may place her at immediate risk of serious harm,” a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, told the news agency Reuters on 31 March.
“Any plan to forcibly return Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a global advocacy group, was quoted as saying.
India’s Hostility Towards The Rohingya
“Initially, entry to India via Bangladesh was a bit easier, but in the past few years it has become increasingly difficult,” said a Rohinygya activist in Delhi, speaking to Article 14 on condition of anonymity. He attributed these difficulties 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 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 has offered non-Muslim migrant groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
Since India is not party to the 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.
And as we reported in January 2020, India excludes 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 report said, “puts most refugees and asylum seekers residing in India, including Rohingyas, at risk of arrest and deportation”.
Rukhsana’s attempted deportation, then, should not have been a surprise.
How Rukhsana Came To India
Rukhsana and three Rohingya women were detained by the Assam Police in October 2019 when they were found wandering around Silchar.
Since she was a minor, she was sent to a child care institution run by the NNS. The three women with her were sent to a detention centre.
It is not clear how Rukhsana made her entry into India. Subhir Roy, spokesperson for NNS, the NGO, said there was no police first information report that recorded her unauthorised entry into India.
It was hard to say, said Roy, if Rukhsana was trafficked. Her counselling reports reveal she was in touch with someone in India who helped her across the border. “It might have been a trap,” he said.
The 4,000-km-long India-Bangladesh border is porous and notorious for human trafficking. With villages, families and even homes split between the two nations, smugglers traffick goods and human beings, and the response by border forces results in detentions and, sometimes, death.
A couple of weeks before police detained her in Silchar, Rukhsana had “gone missing” from her uncle’s home in Cox’s Bazar.
Rukhsana’s father Jaber said he tried to find her and even filed a complaint with UNHCR officials, but she was not found.
Jaber and his family escaped Myanmar in 2017 at the peak of the persecution against the Rohingya, who were made stateless by the government in 1982. Jaber said his family did not face physical violence directly but because “everyone was fleeing violence, we also left our home”.
Jaber said he currently lived with his second wife Sajida, 27, and four children and made a living doing odd jobs in and around refugee camps. Rukhsana’s mother, Sura Khatoon, died of tuberculosis in 2007, said Jaber.
Trauma And Talent
Rukhsana complained to counsellors about being married to an elder relative and ill treatment from her stepmother. She has clearly endured trauma, they said, given her departure from home amidst a genocide and unsettled family life in a refugee camp.
She is the first Rohingya child sheltered by NNS and was apparently initially unhappy at being there.
“We treat her the same as other inmates,” said Roy, who said the institution was run in accordance with India’s Juvenile Justice Act, 2015. The children, who include those who are abandoned and homeless, are confined to the premises but have access to educators and counsellors.
Roy described Rukhsana as “a bright child” with a talent for languages. “She is very fluent in Bengali, and she can speak good Hindi,” said Roy. “She is active with extra-curricular activities like dancing. But she has slowly forgotten her Burmese language."
In time, though she “slowly adapted to the discipline of our home, she always wanted to reunite with her family”, said Roy.
In 2020, around March, the NGO approached Cachar district’s child protection unit and child welfare committees to see if that reunion was possible.
“It takes almost a year to finalise repatriation,” said Meena, the police officer.
After several months of waiting, the NGO got a letter from the government in December 2020, informing them she would be deported in January.
The NNS objected, arguing that Rukhsana should be reunited with her family in Bangladesh. But another letter in March reiterated the deportation decision.
“We tried to object till the last moment,” said Roy, “But we cannot go beyond the authorities, which are the police and MEA (ministry of external affairs).”
On 30 March, Rukhsana and her police escort left Silchar for Moreh. Four days later, she was back when Myanmar refused to open the border gate.
“She has been handed over to us,” said Roy, “And she is very happy that she is back.”
Hussain Johar, a Rohingya refugee, translated the interview with Mohammad Jaber.
(Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi.)