In an echo of the Occupy movement that attracted so much attention around the world last year, hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers have camped out for nearly four weeks in front of the UN refugee agency’s office in an upscale New Delhi neighborhood to demand full recognition as refugees.
The protesters, who belong to a Muslim ethnic minority persecuted in Burma and shunned by Bangladesh, say they are being unfairly discriminated against by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because they are denied services granted to refugees.
“We are recognized as asylum seekers, while Chin, Arakanese and some others from Burma are recognized as refugees. We have been discriminated against as we are not receiving any assistance from the UNHCR, like education for our children, health care and financial support, which others are receiving,” said Shom Shul Alomr, one of the protesters.
“We will not leave here till we are recognized as refugees,” he added.
The men, women and children now living makeshift camps in New Delhi’s exclusive Visant Vihar neighborhood say they made their way here from Buthitaung and Maungdaw Townships in Burma’s Arakan State via Bangladesh. Long scattered around India, where they have lived for three to 10 years, they say have gathered here to demand their rights.
“I came from Maungdaw. I fled from the Burmese government’s human rights abuses and formerly lived in Bangladesh. Later, we moved to India because we believed that this is a democratic country with sympathy and peace, where we can take refuge. If we cannot live here as refugees, we want to go to another country where we can live as refugees,” said one of the protesters.
Local residents have expressed sympathy for the plight of the Rohingyas, but also say they fear that their presence disturbs the peace and could cause health problems.
“We are sympathetic to them, but we don’t feel safe,” said one resident. “How can we live peacefully when there is a crowd out there day and night in our neighborhood? Moreover, the area is becoming dirty due to a lack of proper sanitization.”
Others said the the Indian government should do more to assist the asylum seekers.
“The government of India is providing free education to everyone who lives in the country. I have many refugee and asylum seekers friends from different neighboring countries who send their children to government schools. I hope the government and UNHCR can help them,” said a local taxi driver.
Officials from the UNHCR said they are having an ongoing dialogue with the group to find the best way to assist them.
“There are different approaches to treating refugees in India. For this group of people, we believe the asylum-seeker status protects their interests,” said Nayana Bose, the UNHCR’s associate external relations officer.
“The majority of this group is dispersed and lives in areas far away from Delhi, where UNHCR is not present. It is not possible for UNHCR to provide support services in all the different parts of India, for reasons both of lack of proximity as well as lack of resources,” she explained.
“However, the agency does have a responsibility towards persons of its concern no matter where in the country they are located. For this reason, UNHCR supports them to the extent possible through governmental, NGO and other partners,” she added.
“As for right to health care and education, this is available for everybody. They can access free education at government schools.”
According to the UNHCR, there are around 1,800 Rohingya registered as asylum seekers in India. Each one has been issued an identity card to protect them from harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention and expulsion, and to prevent them from being forced back to a country where their life or freedom may be in danger. The UNHCR says this gives them the same protection as refugees.