Sitting in his dilapidated house in Assam State’s Dhubri District, Asif wonders what fate has in store for him and the hundreds of other Rohingya who live on the fringes of survival across India. His worries are not unfounded, as there is the sense of increasing police surveillance of the country’s Rohingya population, especially after the arrests of eight Rohingya in the past month near the town of Moreh on the border with Myanmar.
It remains unclear whether the men are human traffickers, as accused, or were merely trying to enter India illegally to settle. Perhaps they are among the roughly 700,000 Rohingya who have fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State — mostly for Bangladesh — after a military crackdown there triggered by militant Rohingya attacks on security posts in late August 2017. But the media in India are awash with stories virtually pronouncing at least two of the eight Rohingya, arrested on April 7 near Moreh, human traffickers. Many reports even claim that the two men — identified as Md Saifullah, 34, and Md Salam, 25, from Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township — were trying to sell a 20-year-old woman.
Manipur State police on Monday told The Irrawaddy that so far “nothing is clear,” and that the arrested men were “only suspected” of trafficking. Tengnoupal District Police Superintendent S. Ibomcha said the 20-year-old woman, also from Maungdaw, may even be the wife of one of the suspects. She was brought before a local court earlier this week because she did not have any travel documents with her when arrested along with the two men.
Soon after the April 7 arrest, two more men were apprehended on suspicion of being part of the same group. But as with the other arrests, there is no solid evidence of trafficking. Manipur police have launched an investigation to get to the truth. But that has not stopped the rumor mill from turning, which makes Rohingya living in India that much more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, even for political ends.
Members of Manipur’s civil society, including Women’s Action for Development and the United NGOs Mission Manipur (UNMM), are concerned that the Rohingya are being painted by some as a terrorist threat to justify keeping the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act on the books.
The law took effect in Manipur in 1980 because of the state’s history with militant groups, though critics say it has often been used to shield human rights abuses by the security forces. The Indian Army, the Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police all enjoy special protection under the law. Still, in July, the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe allegations that they had carried out extrajudicial killings. Between 2000 and 2012, 1,528 people were killed in encounters with the state’s security forces.
Nabakishore, who heads the UNMM, says the military is always looking for a reason to justify the continued need for the Special Powers Act, especially when New Delhi is under pressure to scrap it. He recalled a claim from a retired general a few months ago that the Islamic State was attempting to establish itself in northeast India and that a stateless community like the Rohingya could become easy prey for recruiters. Such claims that the country’s estimated 40,000 Rohingya pose a security threat, even if they have no connections to any terrorist organization, are being promoted by government officials and right-wing groups pushing for their deportation to Myanmar.
So it is not without reason that Asif and others like him fear for their lives or falling victim to traffickers and terrorists.
I asked Asif if he feared getting deported or detained for questioning. He replied that his greatest fear was “of being trapped between traffickers, smugglers, unknown people and cops…. It’s easy, because the human traffickers are our very own people and are part of a brutal human trafficking syndicate that has its tentacles spread out all over the region.”
Far away, his fears were echoed by another young Rohingya man. Aziz, who works as a roti seller in Bangkok, said he feared “being trapped between the traffickers and the cops.”
Their fears are not misplaced. Reports of the mass graves that were unearthed in a squalid jungle camp in southern Thailand in 2015, where hundreds of Rohingya migrants had been brutally exploited, are still fresh in their minds. The related arrest of a senior Thai army general was widely reported, as was the involvement of police, Rohingya traffickers and a former provincial official turned prominent businessman.
After a historic two-year trial, the 500-page verdict issued on July 19 by the Bangkok Criminal Court included convictions against the three-star general, the former official and 60 others for trafficking Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand.
Yet Rohingya men and women remain vulnerable. Asif and Aziz say they feel as though nothing has changed
“There is the danger of getting caught by traffickers and falling prey like so many of our people everywhere,” Aziz said. He soon warned that I should not be seen talking to him lest it attract the attention of “boidmaish manush,” or “bad people.”
Those closely tracking the spread of human trafficking networks in the Rohingya community say that a Myanmar Muslim suspected of having played a key role the previous trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis into Thailand’s notorious fishing industry was still active and exploiting the latest flood of refugees.
Recent months have seen news reports of young boys going missing from the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District, and of international humanitarian agencies warning of expanding trafficking networks in the camps. In November, the International Organization for Migration told AFP that human trafficking in the camps was “rife.”
Rohingya are surely the most exploited stateless community today and their situation is only getting worse. Myanmar refuses to recognize them as an ethnic group, denying the vast majority of them a path to citizenship, or to provide them much protection from abuse by the military and Buddhist nationalists. Until it does, Rohingya both in Myanmar and neighboring countries will continue to struggle for recognition as a community, and those like Asif and Aziz will perhaps continue to live in fear of ending up as slave labor, terrorist tools or useful bogeymen for scaremongers with ulterior motives.
The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.