NEW DELHI — India deported seven Rohingya Muslims who had fled their native Myanmar back to their country Thursday, sparking concerns that the move could endanger their lives and violate international laws that protect refugees.
The move comes as India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has escalated its rhetorical attacks on migrants who have entered the country illegally. The party’s powerful president, Amit Shah, has repeatedly promised to deport all such migrants, and portrayed them as a security threat. At a public rally in September, he likened them to “termites.”
The northeastern state of Assam, where the seven men were imprisoned since 2012, has been ramping up efforts to identify and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally.
“If someone enters the country illegally, we will send them back,” Bharat Bhushan Babu, spokesman for India’s Home Affairs Ministry, said. When asked if that included people fleeing violence in their native countries, he said, “This is applicable to everyone.”
The Rohingya community is a Muslim minority that has faced repeated persecution and violence in Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist. Forcing Rohingya people to return to Myanmar could constitute refoulement, a crime under international law, E. Tendayi Achiume, a U.N. human rights expert, said in a statement.
“The Indian Government has an international legal obligation to fully acknowledge the institutionalized discrimination, persecution, hate and gross human rights violations these people have faced in their country of origin and provide them the necessary protection,” the statement said.
Achiume also raised concerns about the men’s extended detention in India and the country’s failure to give them adequate legal counsel.
An exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017 drew the world’s attention to Myanmar’s human rights abuses against its Muslim minority. The United Nations has called it a genocide. Myanmar’s government has repeatedly denied that charge and accused Rohingya communities of setting their own villages ablaze to draw the world’s sympathy.
An additional 40,000 Rohingya refugees are thought to be in India, although only 18,000 are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many of India’s Rohingya refugees came before the most recent wave of violence in 2017. A statement from the UNHCR said the seven men deported Thursday were not registered with the agency.
On Tuesday, India’s home minister said the government had asked states to start collecting Rohingya biometrics so they could be sent back to Myanmar.
Under increasing international pressure to allow the Rohingya refugees to return, Myanmar’s government has issued notices on social media purportedly showing a handful of Rohingya going back to their homes and receiving supplies from the government.
According to officials who briefed The Washington Post on a recent trip to Rakhine state, two families have been resettled. But experts have cast doubt on their authenticity, with news reports and locals in Rakhine state saying the repatriations were staged.
The U.N. statement also said conditions in Myanmar were not “conducive for safe, dignified and sustainable returns for Rohingya.”
“These individuals should be allowed to make an informed decision about their return to Myanmar in the current conditions and/or access their right to seek safe asylum,” the statement said.
Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, a senior police officer from Assam state, said the police were not considering the Rohingya’s ethnic or religious background when deporting them. “I’m not bothered if they are Rohingya or Muslim or Hindu or Christian. We’re not bothered by caste and creed. We are bothered about the law,” he said.
The men are from Kyauk Daw township in central Rakhine. They were arrested and jailed at the Silchar central prison in Assam in 2012 and charged with irregular entry, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The ministry said in a statement that Myanmar’s government had identified the men as “residents” of Myanmar and had provided “Certificates of Identity to facilitate the travel of these individuals to their hometowns in Rakhine state.” The statement said the men had asked to be repatriated in 2016 and that the ministry on Wednesday had confirmed “their willingness to be repatriated.”
Full citizenship — and not “residency” or “certificates of identity” — has been one of the key demands of Rohingya activists seeking repatriation.
Rohingya leaders say Myanmar’s refusal to acknowledge the Rohingya’s long history in the country is a key reason for the discrimination against them. Rohingya are often incorrectly termed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and referred to as “Bengalis” — stripping them of their rights as equal citizens of Myanmar.
Human rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan had urged India’s Supreme Court to stop the deportations, or at least allow the United Nations to speak to the deportees to ensure they knew the risks of returning to Myanmar. On Thursday, Ranjan Gogoi, India’s chief justice, said the court would not interfere with the deportation.
Assam, where the men were arrested, has made huge efforts to “detect-delete-deport” illegal migrants in recent years. The state has a long border with Bangladesh and huge migration flows that many say threatens Assamese jobs and culture.
In July, the state of Assam released a list of its citizens, but excluded 4 million people. Many, especially Muslims who were left off the list, fear it could lead to detentions and deportations.
Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.