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Reflections on narratives of flight of Rohingya in India

By Rachel D’Silva

These narratives from camps in Hyderabad are based on my discussion with the Rohingya refugees. I was interested to know how they describe their migration to a country in which they find themselves in. In the era of securitisation of migration, it is necessary to unwind the narratives and histories of people’s migration. This article uses a qualitative understanding of meanings in a context to bring out themes in narratives of flight. These themes are reflected in the context of home for the Rohingya.

The nation-state and territory are parts of the narrative of how and why people move despite severe restrictions and having to lead lives in exile. This is because the nation-state becomes a space for protection for those displaced by persecution and conflict. This paper presents three narratives. The respondents were asked how and why they came to India. I do not intend to frame these strictly as narratives of refugees or migrants but would like to inquire into experiences of flight.

Hanifa mentioned that she arrived here in 2012. I then asked her how she came here after the conflict began. Hanifa narrated as follows:

(Interview) When the violence took place in 2012, I used to work as a teacher with the UNHCR. I did not go to college because it is difficult to go to college there after passing standard 10th. I joined UNHCR and taught for two years. The violence began in 2012. All the organisations like the NGOs who had come from outside had to leave. They said wherever you have come from, go back there; no NGO can remain in Burma. So my job came to an end.

I used to teach in an area 20 kms away from my place in Buthidaung, when the violence began. After the violence began, I could not come home that day. Everything was shut. We used to use the boat to travel to work. There is road transport but from our place to there we had to travel by boat. I could not go home, and they shut the boat transport. The military said that those who have worked with UN and other organisations have to be checked. They checked things such as ‘What have you taught and where have you come from?’ They questioned our supervisor and co-ordinator, and they shut it down. One Muslim who moved about like a Buddhist, a Kaman Muslim was beaten badly and told you are a Muslim, why do you roam around like a Buddhist. Our organisation’s director was from the Philippines. In our NGO the Maugh, Burma, Muslims all worked together. They were never differentiated on the basis of group, they belonged to the UNHCR which says that all people are human beings and looks at everyone through the eyes of humanity. It is opposite for the government.

When the violence started, they began to chase us. They also came to inquire in the area where we live and checked there. I reached home the next day by walking on the foot and by vehicle paying Rs. 1000. The boat line was shut. There was an inquiry on a son and daughter from our area who were working in the NGO. If a young girl is taken for inquiry, they oppress her and kill her or they do something to her and don’t send her back, especially a young girl. With that fear I came home. When I came home, I thought they would come to my village. My dad said he will do something. My dad had been to Bangladesh earlier. He said he will see how we can come to Bangladesh because the road had been closed. My dad went first, after 20 days he sent my uncle, mother’s brother who lives close to border in Maungdaw to our home to take us. There is a mountain between my home and Maungdaw, it is not possible for us to go alone. Myself and my younger brother along with our Mother’s brother crossed to Maungdaw. It took one day to cross the mountain by foot. After coming to Maungdaw we took a car to my Uncle’s house. After the crossing my legs had swollen up so we waited and heated our feet with hot water. Then after three days we crossed the border with my Uncle through the river. The river is called Ferram Fro. It’s also called Bada Gouzubil. There are agents or Dalal there who take lot of money. They have agents in Burma. We had to cover ourselves because on the way the Na Sa Ka may see us. In Bangladesh there is a registered refugee camp where my cousin sister lives. When the refugee situation occurred in 1998 then she registered there. My brother-in-law took me along with all my documents from Burma like 10th standard certificate and teaching certificate to the International Refugee Organisation in Bangladesh.

I was accompanied by a Rohingya girl and interpreter to the home of the Camp leader. When I talked to a leader of the camp, he invited his neighbour, a Maulana, to talk to us. We asked him how they came here and if they could tell us their experience.

(Interview) In our village when people were being killed, cut and villages were being burnt I fled into the jungle for two weeks. I am a member of a big madrassa and also have land. So, about hundred people came to catch me. When they came, I escaped from my home and ran into the jungle. I spent many days in the jungle, after which I came here. No one knows the route in the jungle, so I had to spend two weeks there. In the jungle we don’t know where children have gone, mother has gone. I did not know where my son had gone. I left him too and came. Moving from the jungle I came to Bangladesh and then from Bangladesh I came to India. I came to India in December 2016. It took 20 days to come to India. While coming I gave into hands of young person’s two children I met along the way. I gave 50,000 each to transport two children and myself. The money was paid to a labourer in Burma. Those two brought us to Kolkata and left us.

A young man working in collaboration with the UN office spoke to us regarding his experience of fleeing. He narrated how things changed gradually back home and made it unavoidable to leave. He narrates as follows,

(Interview) Before the 2012 violence, everything was good in Burma. My father had a shop in the village. It was a grocery store. I was studying. At that time, I had finished my matriculation exam as well. Everything was okay. We had our village, relatives, occupation or work, mothers and sisters. After the violence in 2012 everything was ruined. There was no happiness.

Our Buddhist friends in school stopped talking to us properly. When they saw us, they turned their face and went way. Earlier we used to go to their homes and at their festivals. In their homes we used to eat food. They prepared special food during their festival. And they come for our Eid and eat our food and go.

Where we stay in Buthidaung it is a proper city. Here Muslims live, Hindus live, people from other religions live. The school is close by. Court is close by. Everything is close by. Before 2012, everything was good. Even if we go out as friends all go together. There was no difference between us.

After 2012 things changed. People don’t talk to us properly. My results also came in 2012 and I had passed. After passing the University shut so I could not go to the University. It is shut till now. If I go to the shop the Buddhist troubles us. They come and take goods from the shop and we can’t say a thing and if we would say a fight would begin. Day by day the situation became that way, restrictions came upon us. When I go to the hospital with sickness of fever, they would give treatment for another sickness. This is because they say we are not from there. We are not from Burma. Some years back our forefathers had migrated from Bangladesh and so we should not be given citizenship of Burma.

This is not just from 2012. It is happening since 30 to 40 years. Slowly one restriction and second restriction are put upon us. Then in 2012 this came in big way. First in 1962 our citizenship was taken away. Before this we were citizens there. The government would consider us as citizens. After this the restrictions that were brought upon us were like you have to take permission if you need to go to another city. Like for example if from Hyderabad you need to go to go to Secunderabad though it falls in the same district you need to take permission. On a paper we have to take permission that we need to go to stay for two days or three days. The government has put restrictions on marriage. We can’t get married freely. For getting married we have to submit a big application and after checking it they approve it. In the mosque not more than five people can meet and say their payers. We expected that things would improve in 2013 and 2014 because our own country and land is our own. But nothing has improved. If we go to Bangladesh, they say you are people from Burma, if we go to India they say you are people from Burma.

The narratives of three persons above reflect themes of communalisation of minds and attitudes, gender violence, religious violence and restrictions on freedom of movement and identity-based discrimination that have conditioned the flight and displacement of the people. In longer narratives of home, the respondents narrated how they had to leave behind or sell off wealth, land and possession almost with no hope of getting it back. These themes reflect a discriminatory citizenship for the Rohingyas. However, it is structures of economic, military and political power centred on the nation that renders them powerless and vulnerable on the basis of their identity. In her work titled “Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees – Contested Identity and Belonging” published in 2017, Kazi Fahmida engages with identity, citizenship and belonging of the Rohingya refugees. These questions remain central to the debate on the Rohingya. The Rohingyas have not been able to find a place based on their identity within nation-state and territory structure of nations in Asia. They are stateless in their country and refugees in other countries. The narratives of flight call into discussion the issues of social conflict in the Rakhine State and the cities in Myanmar as well political exclusion in national democratic politics for national minority groups. Moreover, in the absence of refugee law and framework to address statelessness in most of South Asia the question of legal and social protection of the Rohingyas fleeing the conflict is a pertinent one.

In May 2018, I visited a Rohingya refugee camp in Hyderabad. I interviewed UNHCR partner organisations regarding the situation of Rohingya refugees. I conducted a few interviews with Rohingyas to know about their experiences of flight. I discussed with young people regarding the experience of violence and conflict in their home country. I visited the non-formal education centres for children and adolescents. I had a glimpse of some of the livelihoods taken up by the refugees in the camp. This piece of writing is my reflection on the Rohingya issue after interacting with the Rohingya refugees.

Photo: Waseem Hussain

Rachel D’Silva is Ph.D. Scholar at the Central University of Gujarat. Her research is on forced migration, urban refugees and social policy. She can be reached at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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