NEW DELHI - Accessed from a dusty, unpaved path, a shanty type settlement housing about 70 Rohingya families on the outskirts of New Delhi presents a squalid but quiet picture as children play, women fill water from a tanker and an elderly man patiently sifts through piles of waste material to pick out strips of wood for the household stove.
But underneath the calm, tension runs high among the refugees following reports that authorities plan to identify and deport the mostly Muslim minority that fled Myanmar due to alleged persecution.
Nurfatimah, now 30, who crossed over into India a decade ago, fears the life she slowly pieced together here might again be about to fall apart.
WATCH: Future is unsure
Cramped but safe
Despite living in a cramped, dirty room with her three children who were born in India, she has no complaints because she feels safe. The fear of venturing out of her home in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims have been the victim of sectarian violence, has become a distant memory. “India is better for us,” she said.
In the New Delhi settlement, she and the other refugees live on a small patch of land given by a charity, the Zakat Foundation, and eke out a living working mostly as daily wage laborers.
Rohingyas fear deportation
But amid growing calls from Hindu groups for their deportation, uncertainty hangs over her and the estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims scattered through several Indian cities.
“Everyone is thinking what to do. I keep thinking why did this happen to me? Why is this in our destiny?” she asked in despair.
Less security further north
Apprehension is even higher among the approximately 6,000 Rohingya refugees who have settled in the northern city of Jammu, where calls to oust them have been the loudest.
After several shacks of Rohingya Muslims in Jammu were burned in recent days, a deep sense of insecurity has gripped the refugees.
Random acts of violence
In a separate incident, a community leader, Karimullah, alleges his little shop where he had kept scrap to sell was set on fire, some of his family members were beaten by unidentified men and his landlord is pressuring them to vacate their small rooms.
The incidents have shaken the Rohingya refugees. Wondering why they suddenly became unwanted, Karimullah said, “It is the first time in 10 years that I have faced this. After this I am really scared,”
Police say they are investigating the incidents.
Chamber of Commerce
Among those calling for their eviction is the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which fears the presence of the Muslim minority poses a security threat in a region that has long grappled with Islamic militancy.
The head of the industry body, Rakesh Gupta, said they are pushing for their deportation because of worries that “they can be used by militants or anti-national forces to create communal atmosphere… The chamber wants peace because the economy depends on peace.”
Gupta was quoted earlier as warning they will launch an “identify and kill” movement if the refugees are not deported, but later retracted, saying his remarks were taken out of context.
Security analyst Ajay Sahni at the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi said there are fears that the Muslim minority may be radicalized by Pakistan-based terror groups. “This is our concern, this is our problem.” However he added, “We have not seen as yet any major or significant attempt by Rohingya Muslims to engage in any kind of terrorist activities in India.”
Sahni said the refugees are being identified as “part of a broad movement against all illegal migrants in the country,” but added the move so far “has been hugely unsuccessful.”
A struggle for Rohingyas in India
The United Nations Refugee Agency in New Delhi has given identity cards to about 14,000 Rohingya refugees, making it possible for them to send their children to school. But Elsa Sherin Mathews at UNHCR points out that being poor and unskilled, the refugees only find low-skilled jobs and sometimes face exploitation.
She also said they often live in poor and unsanitary conditions with limited access to water, toilets and electricity.
However, at the camp in New Delhi, the refugees are prepared to cope with squalor and poverty because they enjoy a sense of freedom.
But India is better than Bangladesh
For some of them, their first stop was Bangladesh, where tens of thousands of Rohingyas have fled. But tough conditions in that country prompted them to cross over into India.
“I could not roam around outside the camp, they would put us in jail, the camp was overcrowded, so we came here,” said 27-year-old Jafar Alam. “I want to live in India”, he said. “People (in Myanmar) are still being persecuted, they are in trouble. Rather than leave us there, it is better to put us in jail, punish us here.”
The eldest resident of the camp, 60-year-old Amanullah, also questioned where they will go if the government presses ahead with plans to deport them. Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as its citizens, calling them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. However, it has long denied allegations of widespread abuse and mistreatment of the Muslim minority.
He said although 70 families are now cramped in a plot that would have accommodated only two families back in his village, they have been content so far because they feel secure. Amanullah, who often spends time ensuring that the refugees live in harmony, said, “We can only go back if there is peace.”