Originally posted, Thursday 26 August 2021, on the UCL IRDR Blog.
Yesterday – 25 August 2021 – marked four years since the start of a brutal military assault against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, which forced three quarters of a million Rohingyas to flee over the country’s borders. The deliberate, systematic, and extreme violence used by the Myanmar military to kill, sexually assault, and displace Rohingyas from their homelands and out of the country has rightly been documented as genocidal – i.e. violence ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Though this date isn’t the start of the persecution faced by Rohingyas in Myanmar (which has been ongoing for several decades), it was certainly one of the largest and most systematic of the assaults against the community in recent years.
August 2017 also marks an anniversary date for the deliberate scaling back of humanitarian protections in many neighbouring countries.
Over a million Rohingya refugees are living in increasingly challenging conditions in countries across Southeast and South Asia – denied rights, denied mobility, marginalised and – in several high-profile cases – refouled back to Myanmar, or prevented from making a safe landing to seek refuge. I have spent the last five years researching the humanitarian context for Rohingya refugees in India, and those years have been marked by a drastic breakdown of protection and basic humanitarian assistance.
Prior to 2017, Rohingya refugees in India – who number in the low tens of thousands – were able to register with the UNHCR India, receive refugee cards and visas, and were able to try to make lives for themselves while awaiting the opportunity for safe return to Myanmar. Then, in early August 2017, just a few weeks before the Myanmar military launched its latest large-scale assault on the community in Rakhine state, the Indian government declared Rohingya refugees within its own territory to be “illegal migrants”. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration of protection.
India’s failure to protect and attempts to deport
In a recent Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) briefing I co-wrote with Rohingya activist Maung Thein Shwe and ISI’s Natalie Brinham, we documented that, since the beginning of August 2017, Rohingyas in India have faced:
- refusals to renew or issue immigration documentation
- exclusion from national ID cards that are essential for accessing basic services like health, education, and banking
- discrimination in schools and healthcare facilities
- denial from Covid-19 relief packages and vaccine drives
- arbitrary dismissal from work and the withholding of pay
- sustained hate campaigns from vocal sections of the media
- discriminatory and inflammatory anti-Rohingya language by prominent politicians
- precarious living conditions, including fires that have destroyed entire settlements
- and a significant spike in documentation “verification” exercises and arbitrary detentions.
Also in August 2017, the Indian Government issued an order to authorities to identify Rohingya refugees in the country, and ready for their rounding up and deportation to Myanmar. Then, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Indian government deported a total of 12 Rohingyas back to the country, all of whom were denied access to UNHCR. In March this year, authorities in Jammu rounded up at least 150 Rohingyas for “verification” and to initiate deportation procedures. Then, in April, the government made a failed attempt to deport an unaccompanied 14-year-old Rohingya girl across the border.
Forced deportation of refugees to a country where they are experiencing an ongoing threat of genocide is an egregious breach of human and humanitarian rights that flouts not just customary international law, but protections enshrined within the India’s own constitution. Moreover, Myanmar has got more, not less, dangerous over recent months. The country experienced a violent coup d’état on 1 February 2021, and is now headed by the very military that have committed repeated atrocities against Rohingyas in Rakhine state over decades.
Parallel legal proceedings
Cases have been filed against Myanmar for the crime of genocide – The Gambia v. Myanmar – in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); for atrocity crimes in Argentina (under “universal jurisdiction”); and the International Criminal Court has authorised full investigations into crimes committed against the Rohingya that fall within the Court’s jurisdiction (i.e. genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression).
Cases have also been filed in the Supreme Court of India to block the Indian government’s attempted refoulement of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been slow, with many worrying statements littering its progression. During a recent hearing, the then-Chief Justice of India stated that “possibly that is the fear that if they go back to Myanmar they will be slaughtered. But we cannot control all that”. This statement wilfully ignores the role that India’s deportations play in enabling atrocities.
Advocates working on behalf of the Rohingya community in India have also filed petitions to try and force the Indian authorities to provide the basics amenities that any human (let alone a refugee fleeing persecution) should be entitled to expect: e.g. access to running water, access to health and education services, basic public health facilities, and safe accommodation. Just as with The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case in the ICJ, these cases in the Indian Supreme Court are ongoing, and Rohingya safety and wellbeing in India continue to hang in the balance.
It is no coincidence that genocide in Myanmar and persecution and humanitarian failures in India are running in tandem. Amal de Chickera – co-founder and co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion – remarked in a recent webinar that “this is a moment of impending crisis… the marginalisation of Rohingya is part of a deeper, longer term erosion of the democratic rule of law in India and elsewhere in the world”.
Rohingya refugees are being deliberately marginalised through hate speech and discrimination, and then that marginalisation is used to frame this refugee group as a security threat and justify repressive actions – eroding the rule of law in the process. Relatedly, humanitarian assistance and the provision of safe refuge are presented as “gifts” to be enjoyed by select communities on the basis of (often discriminatory) conditions, rather than as basic rights rooted in a shared humanity.
Recognising all aspects of violence
The 25 August 2017 commemoration date must serve as a marker for all aspects of the violence faced by Rohingyas. It must continue to draw international attention to the persecution and suffering of Rohingyas by the Myanmar state as well as the Rohingya community’s need for justice, for citizenship in Myanmar, and for safe living conditions in their own country. This anniversary must also draw international attention to the huge humanitarian and protection failures of refugee host countries like India, where state-supported marginalisation, intolerance and anti-Rohingya hate speech are creating punishing living conditions and risk further facilitating genocide.
This blog is an adapted version of Jessica Field’s presentation at the 4th Rohingya Genocide Anniversary Commemoration event, hosted by Restless Beings on 25th August 2021 in London.
For further reading, see briefs published by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:
- ‘Failure to Protect: The Denial of Status, Detention and Refoulement of Rohingya Refugees in India’, Https://Www.Institutesi.Org/Resources/Rohingya-Refugees-In-India-Briefing-Paper (August 2021);
- ‘Locked In and Locked Out: The Impact of Digital Identity Systems on Rohingya Populations’, https://www.institutesi.org/resources/locked-in-and-locked-out-the-rohingya(November 2020).