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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

India hands over Rohingya immigrants to Myanmar

Deportation of seven men marks the first time the government acted on its threat to send back illegal immigrants

Seven Rohingya men, sitting, were sent across the India-Myanmar border at Moreh in Manipur state on October 4, 2018. Reuters
Seven Rohingya men, sitting, were sent across the India-Myanmar border at Moreh in Manipur state on October 4, 2018. Reuters

India deported a group of Rohingya on Thursday in the first such move since the government promised last year to identify and deport illegal immigrants including members of the persecuted Myanmar ethnic minority.

Seven Rohingya men were handed over to Myanmar authorities at the border on Thursday morning after being held in a detention centre in Assam since 2012 for illegal entry into India.

The Supreme Court rejected a plea against their deportation during a hearing on Wednesday of another petition against the government's plans to send back Rohingya immigrants. The judges said they did not want to "interfere with the decision” after a government lawyer told the court that Myanmar had already recognised the seven Rohingya men as citizens.

There are estimated 40,000 Rohingya living in India after fleeing persecution in Myanmar over the past decade, but only about 16,500 are registered with the United Nations' refugee agency. Neighbouring Bangladesh took in about 700,000 Rohingya refugees late last year after Myanmar's military launched a crackdown against the minority in August.

The following month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government called the Rohingya “a threat to national security” and said they would be deported.

In response, two Rohingya men filed a petition with the Supreme Court, arguing that the government’s decision to deport members of the community violated international human rights conventions.

In an affidavit filed with the court, the government alleged that many Rohingya “figure in the suspected sinister designs” of militant groups in Pakistan and elsewhere which were trying to spark “communal and sectarian violence in sensitive areas of the country”.

The government also argued that the Rohingya would eat into India’s valuable resources, depriving legitimate citizens “of their legitimate share in the employment sector, subsidised housing, medical and educational facilities”.

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Although the Supreme Court has not yet decided on the petition, the government has signalled that it intends to continue with its deportation plans. On October 1, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that state governments had been instructed to collect the biometric details of Rohingya living within their borders, presumably to make deportation a smoother process.

India’s deportation of Rohingya on Thursday drew fire from the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, E Tendayi Achiume, who said it amounted to “a flagrant denial of their right to protection”.

In a statement, Ms Achiume said she was also “appalled” at the long duration of their detention, calling it “inhuman and degrading treatment”.

“We urge the government of India to abide by the international norms … and protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, including Rohingyas,” she said.

The UN refugee agency says conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where most Rohingya lived, are not safe for their return.

Returning people to a place where they risk persecution, known as refoulement, is prohibited under the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention. India argues that since it never signed the treaty, it is under no obligation to abide by its principles.

But Nafees Ahmad, a professor of law at South Asian University in New Delhi, said that India is a signatory of other international treaties and conventions that would also bar refoulement.

“Even under the Indian constitution, courts have said in the past that refugees, aliens and foreigners have a right to life and personal liberty when they are within our country,” Mr Ahmad said.