Statelessness: The Rohingya in India

India Migration Now
Dec 3, 2019 · 9 min read
Children’s Day Celebration at the Budena Gaon Camp, Old Faridabad — Image by Yadhu Krishna, USPF

In 2015, international headlines exploded with the Andaman Sea Crisis. It began with the discovery of mass graves connected to international human trafficking in Thailand and Malaysia where bodies of Rohingya migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar were found. The subsequent crackdown caused traffickers to abandon their human cargo leaving thousands caught perilously at sea. Most of them were Rohingya refugees, fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Since then, a majority ended up back in Bangladesh while many migrated to join the existing Rohingya refugee population in India.

4 years later, the Rohingya Refugee Crisis has only magnified and solutions remain as elusive as they were in 2015.

For this edition of Gotta Keep On Movin’, our team spent the last month travelling around Delhi, interacting with the Rohingya refugee community and the various stakeholders involved in their rehabilitation to try and understand the community’s future in India.

From the 2018 Rohingya Human Rights Initiative Calendar depicting images of Rohingya history in Arakan, Myanmar.Claims to a history that is not accepted by Myanmar

The Myanmar Government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as a national ethnic group and deems them illegal Bengali settlers who migrated from Bangladesh after the British colonial victory. The resultant persecution from the military and the government has displaced more than a million Rohingya people. However, the community continues to maintain its claim of indigenity in Arakan, Myanmar.

Read: A Timeline of Rohingya histpry dating from 1784 to 2017.


Identity has been at the heart of the Rohingya community’s difficulties and this crisis of identity begins in Myanmar. The Rohingya have been subjected to persecution in Myanmar for decades. From the Army’s Operation Dragon King of 1978 to the Citizenship Law of 1982, the Rohingya community was slowly and systematically marginalised, till the official administration no longer acknowledged them as an indigenous ethnic group.

This was accompanied by a string of identification documents which were initiated and subsequently declared invalid. Before 1982, the Rohingya carried a national identification card — in green for men and pink for women. Post 1982, these were taken away and replaced with temporary white cards. Some have gone to great lengths to preserve these earlier cards as counter claims to the Myanmar Government’s declared stance that the Rohingya have never belonged there.

“Since 2012, the Rohingya in Myanmar are actually required to sign up for a Foreigner’s Registration Card”, said a young Rohingya community leader from Delhi. Many refuse to, seeing it as a self-acknowledgement of their foreign origin (and exactly what the Myanmar Government wants) but some are forced to under duress.

Read more: Identity and Belonging in a Card: How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

Life After Displacement

International Migration Trajectories of the Rohingya Community: Survey conducted by the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation

In India, the Rohingya are scattered, in small camps and otherwise, across parts of Jammu, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu.

“The community is extremely mobile, moving constantly from settlement to settlement in India, often it is difficult to keep track of them,”, said Mr. Ubais Sainulabdeen from the Ubais Sainulabdeen Peace Foundation, which has been working in the area of human rights and charity for refugee communities for several years. Mr. Sainulabdeen, himself, has been involved with India’s immigrant and internally displaced communities for 3 decades. The organisation also conducts research surveys, often finding that a group is almost entirely gone just a week after being surveyed.

From the 2019 MMC-DAJI Briefing Report: Rohingya Migration to India: Patterns, Drivers, and Experiences

In many ways, India is a lot better for the community than either Myanmar or Bangladesh. Contemporary accounts collected from Rohingya youth leaders in Delhi and NGOs such as USPF and DAJI confirm that freedom of movement was minimal in both their earlier homes.

In Myanmar, Rohingya people required permits to even move short distances or between villages. Owning a mobile phone required a permit, as did having a marriage in the family. In Bangladesh, life in the camps brings safety from genocide but not much else. They cannot move out of the camps, pursue occupations, or an education, although some enterprising young Rohingya have started earning a living for themselves in remarkable ways.

Read more: Start-up: The Rohingya entrepreneurs eking out a living in refugee camps

What has life in India been like?

Despite the freedom of movement that the community has in India, the vulnerabilities of not having an identity continue to plague them. These result in issues of access to schooling, employment, health facilities, housing, and sanitation. NGOs such as DAJI and USPF have helped them access UNHCR Refugee Cards (although these are not valid everywhere).

Despite this, accounts from the Budena Gaon camp in Faridabad reveal that many Rohingya children are unwilling to go to school because of discrimination. Older students finishing school find it difficult to join college programs because of the documentation that is asked for.

“My sister recently received an offer of admission from the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, but was not able to join because the Home Ministry did not certify her refugee status despite repeated letters. She is currently pursuing a degree through distance learning”, said Nizamuddin, a young Rohingya leader who lives with his family in Delhi.

Similar issues crop up in employment. Most of the poorer members of the community are bonded to the kabadi mafia, some having been trafficked into the country for that very purpose. Conversations with youth leaders and NGOs in Delhi reveal that some Rohingya, especially the non-camp individuals, are able to pursue small business ventures, work in warehouses, and drive autos, often financially supported by NGOs.

The camps in Faridabad, Kalindi Kunj, and Shaheen Bagh areas of NCR mostly comprise temporary shanty-like structures. Members of the community who have come from more urban areas find it difficult to live in the camps and rent rooms from local landlords. This, however, is increasingly becoming a problem.

“Many Rohingya community members are unable to get rental accommodation because the police refuses to complete verification. Local landlords are very supportive but some do face pressure for renting out to the community”, said Nizamuddin. “My landlord has been like a brother to me and my family, here. We have nobody else in this city”, said another Rohingya community member living in Vikaspuri.

WATCH: The lives of Rohingya refugees in Kalindi Kunj, Delhi

For those living in camps, there are problems of inadequate water and sanitation facilities and temporary living structures. In addition to this, fire hazard is an increasing problem. In April 2018, a pre-dawn fire razed the Kalindi Kunj camp to the ground. It was the fourth fire in 6 years. The refugees lost almost all their belongings, including ID papers. Nizamuddin says that during times of emergency such as this, NGOs and Delhi’s student community play an important role.

Many of Delhi’s students work and intern with NGOs working on refugee rights and have built a close connect with refugee communities such as the Rohingya. “This started out just as an internship in my first year of college, but since then I have become very close to the refugee community. I’ve been working with them for more than two years now.” said a student volunteer of the USPF.

Trafficking is another major issue that the community faces in their migration journey. Accounts from Delhi based organisation Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, USPF, and the MMC-DAJI Report of 2019 point to the increased incidence of trafficking, particularly bride trafficking of Rohingya women.

WATCH: Brides and Brothels: The Rohingya Trade


Difficult encounters with local police are very common for the Rohingya community. While NGOs and concerned civil society members such as students do intervene, many in the community are careful to steer clear of police. The police, themselves, see the issue largely from the perspective of security and work according to larger administrative and political priorities.

READ: “The police came into the house unannounced at 4 am and took my friend and I to the police station. They abused us, kept us in a cell for some time and then released us. They also told us that they had to do this because of orders from above. Incidents like this have been happening here for the last two years.” — MMC-DAJI Briefing Report 2019

What can India do for the Rohingya?

What is the Principle of Non-Refoulement?

Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law, preventing countries from repatriating asylum seekers back to a country where they would be in danger of persecution. It is a part of customary international law, applying to countries irrespective of written agreements and is considered by international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice.

India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its subsequent protocols, or its singular principle of non-refoulement. India also does not have a national policy on refugees, but has had a long history of welcoming refugee communities — including the Tibetans and the Sri Lankan Tamils. While Private Member Bills by Members of Parliament such as Shashi Tharoor have been tabled, there has been no movement towards any cohesive refugee policy. Recently, Parliament started debate on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill which proposes to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan — namely, the Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists.

Muslim refugees like the Rohingya were very prominently left out of the list and are often conflated with Bangladeshi economic migrants. Independent lawyer activists and NGOs such as USPF have pursued a legal route for the refugee community and are currently fighting a case in the Supreme Court for the recognition of their refugee status. “It is still pending and we are yet to receive a date. The last hearing did not happen due to the ongoing proceedings of the Ayodhya case”, said a representative from the USPF.

The Rohingya refugees, worldwide, need the global community’s solidarity and aid. While individual countries such as Bangladesh have shouldered much of this burden, India, as a leading South Asian nation with a traumatic history of forced displacement itself must also take action. National security is an important consideration, but there has been no serious indication that the minuscule community that currently lives in India poses such a threat. Mostly, they are poor families trying to rebuild a shattered life and provide a better future for their children. India, and the other countries of South Asia, should stand by them.

Thanks for reading!

To know more about immigration into India, check out this episode of the IMN Podcast. Varun is joined by IMN advisor, Dr Meera Sethi, Dr Ranjana Kumari (Director, Centre for Social Research) and Dr Thomas Huddleston (Research Director, Migration Policy Group).

We look forward to bringing you more stories, insights, and perspectives from the world of migration in the days to come. Until then, please consider supporting us by making a donation. Click here to donate.

Click here to donate

View More on Instagram

The Vikaspuri neighborhood in Delhi where we recently interacted with Rohingya families banished from their homelands. They have opportunities in India but feel unsafe, thus didn’t want their photos taken. They yearn to go back home. #delhi #rohingya #rohingyarefugees #rohingyacrisis #saverohingnya #refugees #india #safety #home #opportunitiesAdd a comment…

India Migration Now

India’s legal and constitutional framework has not been amended to adequately deal with the current realities of cr…

India Migration Now

Written by

Migration is an opportunity, we want to ensure India grabs it. IMN is a South East Migration Foundation venture, based out of Bombay, since Feb 2018.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade