Ramzan Ali was born on March 23, the day the holy month of Ramadan began. His father, 35-year-old Anwar Shah, was ecstatic as he held his fifth child in his arms. Had Ramzan been aware of where he was, he may not have shared his father’s happiness. Barely a month old, he lives amid squalor in a 9x9ft, tarpaulin-roofed hut in a slum at Madanpur Khadar in Delhi.
Ramzan is country-less. Anwar, his father, was born in Chopudaung village near Buthidaung, a town in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State, in 1987. Anwar fled to Bangladesh in 1994 to escape the campaign of the Myanmarese military (known as the Tatmadaw) against the Rohingya community. In 2003, Anwar became part of a group that was repatriated to Chopudaung.
“Lekin zulm bardast nahin hua [I couldn’t bear the atrocities],” he says. He went back to Bangladesh in 2006, and the Kutupalong refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar became his address for the second time.
In 2012, Anwar crossed the open land border between India and Bangladesh, infamous for illegal immigration and contraband smuggling. He had hopes of finding a better life. Now, as part of a group of 52 families that live in the teeming Madanpur Khadar slum, he is more dazed than anything else at the turn life has taken.
Anwar is part of the Rohingya community, regarded as the world’s most persecuted minority. The Tatmadaw and aligned vigilante groups have long been accused of carrying out a genocidal campaign against the community. But Anwar, having lived a precarious life in three countries, has no doubt where his heart lies. “It is in Burma (as Myanmar was known till 1989). This is despite our farm land being taken away, and despite being forced to till my own land for the new occupants,” he says, as tears well up.
Tasleema, 35, also wants to return to her village―Mundo near Buthidaung. “My home is Burma,” she says. Tasleema fled Rakhine when fresh violence broke out in 2012. After six months in Bangladesh, she found herself in Madanpur Khadar in 2013. Pleasant and talkative, her disposition masks her travails. As she stands outside her hut recounting her experiences, her husband yells at her to come back inside. Taslima scurries to obey the order. Patriarchy, it seems, thrives amid poverty and deprivation.
The absence of toilets means women in the slum are forced to find ways to dispose of night soil. “Men can go anywhere, but where can the women go?” asks Nur Islam, a 35-year-old father of two who fled Myanmar in 2013. After a few months at Cox’s Bazar, he arrived in Delhi.
“In 2012-13, in my village in Muladaung near Buthidaung, no one could leave home between 6pm and 6am,” says Nur. “Markets, mosques―everything was closed down. People picked up by the Tatmadaw would simply disappear.”
Nur works as a furniture deliverer. “Work is tough, but I have two kids,” he says. His eyes light up as he talks about two-year-old Yashmin and three-months-old Shamim. “All of us are grateful to India for giving us shelter. We don’t want to be anywhere but in our homeland in Burma. But with conditions being as they are, we are just looking for a better life anywhere,” he says.
But, even in this small community of around 260 people, planning for the future seems meaningless. As is the question why so many children are born in a place when even survival is at stake. “Every month five-six kids are born here,” says Anwar. “Marriages take place within the community, and with our brethren in other Delhi shelters like Vikaspuri, Khajuri Khas and Shaheen Bagh.”
Jammu and Hyderabad, too, have Rohingya settlements. There are an estimated 15,000 Rohingya in India. In the initial years, the community found it difficult to interact with local people. But the language barrier is more or less nonexistent now.
“But getting regular work is not easy, as we are asked for identity cards that we are not entitled to,” says Nur. “Our entire existence is rooted in the card given by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). That is why most of the men are doing odd jobs, or are employed as labourers in construction sites.”
There are safety concerns. “Our shanties have twice caught fire in the past. Every night, four of our young men stand guard and keep watch,” says Nur.
The despondency is suddenly broken by a bunch of boisterous children playing the train game. The line snakes through the dark corridors between the shanties. “The children go to a local school,” says Anwar. “All of them are fluent in Hindi and have assimilated into their surroundings, unlike us adults. They do not realise that they don’t have a country to call their own.”
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India does not officially recognise the Rohingya as refugees, as there is no comprehensive refugee policy here. While India’s record in sheltering refugees is largely positive, it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and the 1967 protocol relating to refugees. Also, the process of framing and implementing decisions on refugees has been arbitrary. So different groups of refugees are treated differently.
But, according to Delhi-based human rights activist Ubais Sainalabdeen, India has had a long record of protecting refugees. “India is well known for her hospitality, and has followed the rule of ‘atithi devo bhava’ for centuries, even before the UN enacted such a rule to protect the refugees,” he says. “India does not require such a pact because, traditionally, we have for years been extending such hospitality to persecuted people across the world.”
But, until a lot of things change, Ramzan Ali will grow up as a child with no country.
Some names have been changed.