Hyderabad: A strong stench and swarms of mosquitoes greet you as you enter the temporary settlement for the Rohingya community — refugees fleeing from persecution in the Arakan region of Myanmar.
The locals call this ghetto in the Balapur and Hafi Baba Nagar areas of Hyderabad “Burmah Ke Log”, or people from Burma (Myanmar).
The first group of refugees reached Hyderabad after crossing the borders of Bangladesh and India in 2012. Many of them also went as far as Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir in the north.
They chose the safety of the Muslim-majority areas of Hyderabad, where local communities welcomed them and were willing to provide them food and shelter.
Such arrivals increased with the surge of violence by Buddhist hardliners in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“Today as many as 3,800 Rohingya refugees are staying in different places in the city,” says Mazhar Hussain, Director, Confederation of Voluntary Associations.
Anxiety is writ large on the faces of over 3,800 Rohingya Muslims living in this city amid reports the Indian government is planning to deport them.
They say they would choose to die here rather than return to Myanmar, where they face persecution.
Recently there was another influx in Hyderabad as many Rohingya were forced to leave their camps in Jammu and Kashmir on security grounds.
“We had to return as we were being looked upon with suspicion and there were frequent checks by the police”, another refugee said.
COVA is partnering with the UN Human rights Commission to help arrange Refugee Cards for and provide some sort of legal status for the refugees.
But, even under this status, they cannot find work and are legally expected to remain in their camps.
Some NGOs have helped them in getting work on daily wages as labourers and workers in hotels.
The police and government authorities have also largely looked other way.
“I am working a hotel for Rs200 [Dh11.40] a day. It is meagre but sufficient to take care of my family as we feel safe here and there is no threat to our lives”, said Abdul Rahman in broken Urdu which he picked up along the way as like most of the people.
“As far as food is concerned, we were initially dependent on the charity from the local people and the Muslim organisation. Now we are trying to manage on our own. Like back in our homes here also our staple food is rice, pulses and vegetables. So there is no big change in that”, said another refugee Abdul Noor.
“Now we are able to communicate with the local people in their language”, he added.
Another refugee, Mohammad Younus, alleged that Buddhist-majority Myanmar always went back on its assurances in the past. “This is the third time that I have become a refugee. They never kept their word,” said the 63-year-old while narrating his tale of woe.
Younus, who is staying here with his wife and daughter, showed a bullet mark on his shoulder. Myanmar’s army fired on him and since he was not treated in his country, he had to go to Bangladesh to remove the bullet.
Younus was a businessman in Arkan and his property was also taken away by the government. His suffering did not end with his arrival in India. His was among 125 families which had to leave Jammu and come here about three months ago.
“Some people drove us out of our camps in Jammu. There is no end to our suffering,” he said, crying inconsolably.
Younus runs a small shop. His two sons Zia-ul-Haq and Shams-ul-Haq are ragpickers and live with their families in separate huts. Despite this penury, they are content with their life in India.
Hyderabad has the second-largest concentration of Rohingyas after Jammu, where the number is estimated at 7,000.
The families have been living in huts or small one-room rented houses in areas like Balapur, Shaheen Nagar, Jalpally, Asad Baba Nagar, Pahadi Shareef on Hyderabad’s southern periphery.
There are 16,000 Rohingya in India registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but the total number is estimated to be 40,000.
In two settlements of Balapur and Hafi Baba Nagar, the local people have organised Madarsa and a pre school facility for the Burmese children. “Later these children are admitted in local private schools”, said a member of COVA.
The help has come in various forms from the local Muslims. Some affluent people have built one or two room dwellings and let it to the refugees on rent.
But the latest reports about government of India intending to send all the Rohingya refugees back has created a scare and left the refugees worried about their future.
Rohingya wonder why the Indian authorities viewed them as a threat to national security.
“We escaped from our country to save our lives. How can we do anything to harm this country which has given us shelter?” asked Mohammad Toha, 31, who lives in Balapur with his wife and three children.
Rights groups have condemned India’s plan to deport some 40,000 Rohingya Muslims, saying India should abide by its legal obligations and protect the stateless refugees who face persecution in Myanmar.
Junior interior minister Kiren Rijiju told parliament last week the central government had directed state authorities to identify and deport all illegal immigrants including Rohingya, even those registered with the UN refugee agency.
“Indian authorities are well aware of the human rights violations Rohingya Muslims have had to face in Myanmar and it would be outrageous to abandon them to their fates,” said Raghu Menon, advocacy manager at Amnesty International India.
“It shows blatant disregard for India’s obligations under international law,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
Rijiju, a high-profile minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, said the UNHCR registration was irrelevant.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out states’ responsibilities towards refugees. Nor does it have domestic legislation to protect the almost 210,000 refugees it hosts.
But Asia’s third largest economy is bound by customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to a place where they face danger, rights groups say.
“The government should put an end to any plans to deport the Rohingya, and instead register them so that they can get an education and health care and find work,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday.