Those who make it out of Myanmar travel to different directions in search of asylum. Those who choose India, their purported ancestral home, exit via Bangladesh. To get there, they must cross the Naaf river (separating Myanmar and Bangladesh), which takes around two hours to cross in fishing boats – a perilous journey that takes many lives.
Bangladesh does not give refugee status to the Rohingya. “The situation in Bangladesh was such that if anyone found out we are from Myanmar, we could be thrown into jail. I had to spend eight months there surviving on frugal meals and doing odd jobs before I could find an agent to cross to India,” says Abdul Khan. The agents charge around 7,500 taka for the service.
Most of the refugees who enter Delhi end up at a camp in a stretch of wasteland in south-east Delhi, owned by the Zakat Foundation. The families live in a small enclosures measuring around 10ft x 10ft, with walls made of tin and plastic sheets for roofs. No electricity has been provided to the camp despite families living there for over three years. The condition in these camps worsens during summer when the sun heats up the tin walls and plastic sheets, and the only source of water is a handpump at the centre of the camp.
“In principle, all refugees in India, including Rohingya, have access to government health and education services but sometimes they have difficulty in accessing these facilities,” a UNHCR official tells Tehelka. The difference between principle and practice appears stark. Last year, 12 kids were admitted to schools nearby through a UNHCR programme. This year, though, the kids have not been admitted and spend their days frolicking in the squalid surroundings of the camp. Many, unsurprisingly, develop skin diseases.
About three months ago, a snake bit three kids in the camp. Two of them died and only a 14-year-old girl survived because she was rushed to AIIMS.
In comparison, living conditions at the Ranhaula Christian camp seems to be better. And religion seems like a small sacrifice to be a part of it. The people are provided free rations for the first two months and given a rickshaw to earn for themselves and there are doctors who are brought in on request.
The camp is run under the supervision of a Rohingya named Shonamiya, who converted to Christianity long ago. The prayer ceremonies are all done under his leadership. However, the source of the funds that come from outside remains unclear. The conversion certificates of Shakur and Yasmin have only the name and signature of Shonamiya with a seal of the Rohingya Christian Assembly.
Shonamiya, speaking to Tehelka, admits that Shakur has been converted in India but insists that he is the only one. “We were all converted to Christianity back in 2004,” he says. “I don’t know anything about the funds. We make our living driving cycle rickshaws.”
Ignored by the government, help has been hard to come by for the Rohingya. “In addition to the bigger support Rohingya receive from local civil society, UNHCR has provided sanitary material to them,” says UNHCR.
Despite the plight of the Rohingya receiving worldwide attention as hundreds of them were stuck on boats off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and having had to drink their own urine to survive, help from civil society in India has been noticeably absent.
“We had approached Jamaat-e-Islami for help. They told us that they did not have enough budget and it is up to the Almighty,” says Khan. President of the Zakat Foundation, asked about the help they give refugees, only had this much to say: “We have earmarked the land on which they are residing.”
“Refugees from many other countries in India have proper income sources, education and all, but we have nothing. No education, no money, no place, not even dreams,” says Salim, who runs a small shop in the Kadar camp.
There are signs that India is starting to look at the Rohingya as a security threat rather than a humanitarian crisis. In June, a meeting was called of officials of seven states where they are settled to monitor their activities. “There is a fear that the members of the community could be vulnerable to radicalisation. We have to be cautious before things go out of hand,” an official told PTI. He also called attention to the “alarming development” of Rohingya marrying Indian girls.
Life has been an unrelenting challenge for Shakur and others who had to leave their homeland and the camp that provided them sustenance because of their faith. The irony of his fate is not what is bothering Shakur now. “My nine-month-old daughter is suffering from pneumonia,” he says while fishing out prescriptions from a plastic bag that contains among other things, his conversion certificate. “It has cost me 7,500 so far to treat her. I don’t have any more money,” he says.