News / Asia

Rohingyas Pass Years in Stateless Limbo in Indian Jail

Ethnic Rohingya boat people rest after being rescued at sea, at a port in Aceh Besar, Aceh province, Indonesia, February 16, 2011 (file photo)
Ethnic Rohingya boat people rest after being rescued at sea, at a port in Aceh Besar, Aceh province, Indonesia, February 16, 2011 (file photo)
Kurt Achin

Hundreds of men belonging to Burma's minority Rohingya ethnic group continue to languish in stateless limbo in an Indian jail, after being rescued at sea more than two years ago.

The waiting came to a welcome end for 18 Rohingya boat people Thursday, as they crossed from India's West Bengal state into Bangladesh. More than 200 other Rohingyas, though, remain in a prison on India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in a waiting process that has stretched from months to years.

Rohingyas are a Muslim minority with historical roots in Burma. However, that nation stripped them of citizenship in 1982, and Rohingyas say they are systematically and violently oppressed by Burmese security forces.

More than 200,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, where some have spent decades in camps while being denied both immigration rights and formal refugee status. Increasingly desperate Rohingyas have attempted dangerous illegal boat journeys to southern Thailand and Malaysia in hopes of finding work and shelter.

India rescued more than 400 Rohingyas at sea in late 2008, after they said the Thai military removed the engine from their boat and towed them out to the ocean, abandoning them without provisions. With the exception of the 18 who left India Friday, they all have languished ever since in an Indian prison facility.

Getting Bangladesh to provide the necessary paper work for their return, the Rohingyas say, often can be a matter of paying police there a bribe, which many say they simply cannot afford.

Recently VOA managed to arrange a phone conversation with several Rohingya prisoners inside the Indian prison in Port Blair. They are unnamed, and their voices are masked, for their protection. One prisoner said desperate conditions drove him to where he is today.

He said life was very hard for them in Burma, where they faced lots of torture. So, he said, he crossed over to Bangladesh 12 years ago with his wife and 5 children.

"In Bangladesh, after the birth of our sixth child, my wife died," he said, explaining that she was sick and that he had no money to take her to a doctor, so she died without receiving any medical treatment. He said he did not earn enough as a day wage construction laborer and could not support his children. That is when he decided to attempt the trip to Malaysia to earn more for his family.

A second prisoner said that under no condition do the Rohingyas want to be sent back to Burma. There, he said, they will definitely face torture. "They will throw us in jail, or even shoot us," he said.

The plight of the several hundred Rohingyas in Indian custody mirrors the much broader Rohingya problem. They are a massive displaced population with neither a state, nor an available mechanism, for seeking asylum.

Speaking to VOA from Bangladesh, Rohingya community leader Salim Ullah said leaders there are reluctant to grant the group refugee status.

Ullah said Bangladesh has its own serious problems with population growth and poverty. Bangladesh will compound those problems by welcoming Rohingyas as refugees, he said, because that will encourage a flood of new Rohingya arrivals from Burma.

International aid organizations say unless the international community steps up to initiate resettlement programs for the Rohingya population, hundreds of thousands of them will continue to live in squalor and be vulnerable to abuse and human trafficking.

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