BATHINDI, Indian-administered Kashmir—Innayat-ul-Rehman was starving. The 10-year-old hadn’t seen his family in a week. That day last Saturday, he had stayed awake until the sun came up, staring at his empty two-room tin shack, with belongings and dirty dishes scattered around him. The boy would usually spend six days a week in a makeshift school built for Rohingya refugees, returning to sleep in his mother’s arms on the weekend. But now, he wondered if he’d ever see her again.
Rehman had just found out that his 45-year-old mother, Anwar Ara, and 13-year-old sister, Jannat Ara, were rounded up, detained, and shifted to a jail in Hiranagar, 37 miles away, along with about 170 others. The mass raid that took Rehman’s family away from him was part of a wider pan-India crackdown on Rohingya refugees by the Narendra Modi government. Long rattled by frequent displacements, countless Rohingya now face deportation to Myanmar, which is currently simmering under a military coup.
The military junta in Myanmar has seized unprecedented control since it carried out the coup on Feb. 1, taking over hospitals and communications. More than 50 civilians have been killed as protests for the return of democracy continue. Rohingya refugees who return to the country face even greater danger than others. The same military junta responsible for burning down their villages, murdering thousands of their people, and raping scores of women and girls are now in charge of the country.
Refugees in Bhatindi told The Daily Beast that the police personnel had approached them last Saturday with a list of names. “We were told to renew our documents,” Muhammad Faisal, one of Rehman’s neighbours, said. “Some left with the police and others were about to leave when we heard that police had detained our people, including Innayat’s mother and sister. We were afraid and decided to stay put.”
The officials were unavailable for comment, but Reuters quoted unnamed personnel describing the crackdown as “part of an exercise to trace foreigners living in Jammu without valid documents… we have started the process of deportation of these refugees.”
The United Nations has maintained its position that deporting the Rohingya violates the international legal principle of refoulement—sending refugees back to a place where they face danger. However, the Modi government has rejected that position, arguing that it is not signatory to the specific U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“Any plan to forcibly return Rohingya and others to Myanmar will put them back in the grip of the oppressive military junta that they fled,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast. “Myanmar’s long-abusive military is even more lawless now that it is back in power, and the Indian government should uphold its international law obligations and protect those in need of refuge within its borders.”
Myanmar does not recognize the roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya, one of the largest ethnic minority population in the country, as citizens. The stateless people have fled in flocks, escaping repetitive crackdowns by the junta in the last decade. Since 2016, more than 6,500 Rohingya, including at least 730 children under the age of 5, have been killed by the military, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
India, where about 40,000 refugees reside, has been one of the primary destinations for the Rohingya. But recent mass detentions have signaled that the country has become an increasingly unsafe place for Muslims under the leadership of Hindutva nationalist Modi.
Following the weekend raids, a few Rohingya Muslims who had settled in Jammu over the last decade left their shacks, fearing further crackdown. A few of them traveled to the national capital and sat in protest in front of the office of the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. On March 11, 88 of them, including pregnant women and children, were detained too.
But Rehman has refused to leave. The door lock to his home is broken—so he doesn’t stray far from his shack. What does he have if not his mother and sister, he wondered. His father had gone missing after the ethnic cleansing in 2016 worsened. “I don’t even remember his name,” Rehman said. “If he is still alive, I don’t think he can even find us [and if he does] I won’t even recognize him.”
Since then, his mother, Ara, worked hard to feed her children. She peeled the skin off walnuts, cleaned them for a local dealer and earned $68 in a month—but that wasn’t enough to sustain the family of three. The dealer has employed other women refugees, often exploiting them for cheap labor, too. Among them was Yasmeena Akhtar.
Akhtar worked double shifts as a maid in the area to be able to take care of her ailing parents: 73-year-old Soliha Ahmad and 65-year-old Zahoora Ara. The duo fled Myanmar in 2012.
Ahmad worked as a daily-wage laborer in Jammu till 2018 before his deteriorating health incapacitated him. Now, Yasmeena’s meagre earnings would buy food while savings brought medication for Ahmad.
Last Saturday, Ahmad and Ara were bedridden, waiting for Yasmeena to return with food. She didn’t. Other refugees last saw Yasmeena outside the neighbourhood with a United Nations card—before she too was detained and shifted to the same jail, which police call a “holding center,” in Hiranagar.
The parents only knew about her detention when she called from the police station. “Taking care of you was not in my destiny, that’s why Allah sent me to this jail,” she said over the phone. “I’m not afraid of this jail but for both of you. I don’t know how you will survive without me. Who will feed you?”
When the darkness comes, Rehman gets scared. “Since that day, I’m afraid to sleep because my mother and sister are not at home,” he said. Sitting at the crossroad outside the concentration area, he awaits the return of his mother and sister as thousands of other Rohingyas stare at an uncertain future, with their lives upended yet again.