Delhi's move to deport the refugees stirs debate

Rohingya refugees arriving by boat at Shah Parir Dwip on the Bangladesh side of the Naf River after fleeing violence in Myanmar on Sept 12, 2017.
Rohingya refugees arriving by boat at Shah Parir Dwip on the Bangladesh side of the Naf River after fleeing violence in Myanmar on Sept 12, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

The Indian government is looking to deport about 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living in India, triggering debate over whether the world's largest democracy and an aspiring global power should turn away refugees seeking asylum.

India has welcomed thousands of Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils and other refugees in the past, but has flagged security concerns over the Rohingya.

India's Home Ministry on Monday told the Supreme Court - where a petition has been filed challenging the government's decision to deport the Rohingya - that it is in possession of intelligence showing some Rohingya in India had links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Pakistan-based terror organisations, labelling the community a "security threat". It said it would share that information with the Supreme Court next month, and urged the court to leave the decision on deporting the Rohingya to the executive.

The Rohingya, some of who have been in India for years, live in different parts of the country, with Jammu state having the largest population. They are not part of the current exodus from Rakhine state, for which the Myanmar government is facing international condemnation. The Myanmar government said it is fighting Rohingya militants.

Critics have said India's move to deport the Rohingya, combined with a mild statement asking Myanmar to handle the situation, went against India's stature as a leading regional power.

Amnesty International called the government's deportation move "abject dereliction of India's human rights obligation", even as the opposition Congress party urged the government not to issue a blanket ban, and sought political consultations.

In the Indian media, too, opinion writers have argued whether India can ignore the developments in Myanmar.

  • 40k Number of Rohingya Muslims the Indian government is looking to deport.

"Since the refugees have no home to return to right now, New Delhi must show some magnanimity," said an opinion piece in The Hindu newspaper entitled "Can India ignore the Rohingya crisis?".

India regards Myanmar as a gateway to South-east Asia and, for years, has cultivated the military junta, and now the government led by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

India's policy towards Myanmar has in large part been driven by its need for help in cracking down on insurgents along its border, as well as its need for energy.

New Delhi has also been concerned over Beijing's increasing influence in Myanmar.

Yet, the Modi government has also sent relief supplies for Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh in an operation called Insaaniyat, or Humanity.

"The basic concern is if we take a stand on refugees and criticise Myanmar, we undo all the good work done. Yet, helping the Rohingya in Bangladesh and not in India is not a very convincing stand," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

"It is a moral dilemma, but the government looks at it in terms of clear balancing of strategic interests and has come to the conclusion that this is the right line to take," he said.

Back in India, the Rohingya community is wondering what will come next.

Mr Ali Johar, 25, who came to the country with his parents when he was 17, said the community, which has continued to struggle in India, worries about its future.

"People are in fear. The government of India is accusing us of being a security threat. So people are feeling helpless and hopeless. We are like birds in a cage - stuck," said Mr Ali.

"But it will be difficult for the Indian government to repatriate. Will Myanmar accept us back?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'Delhi's move to deport the refugees stirs debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe