Rohingya Refugees in Hyderabad: Socio-Economic and Educational Conditions
By Ishrat Jahan
In the recent past, the term ‘Rohingya Muslims’ was highlighted in the media when a boat of human traffickers, full of people from Myanmar, was caught on the Andaman Sea by the Malaysian police. After being arrested, these people narrated about Rohingya genocide to the media. The cruelty and persecution have a long history and were deliberately carried out by the Myanmar government. Now the Rohingyas are known as ‘Floating people’, ‘Rohingyas: the refugees’ and ‘Stateless people.’ There are multiple fables about the origin of the word ‘Rohingya’. Migrated Rohingyas were subsequently recognized as Bengalis of India. On the contrary, others claim that these Rohingyas are the natives of Myanmar. Some historians believe that the term ‘Rohingya’ has been derived from Arabic, meaning rahma which denotes ‘mercy’. It is believed that after a shipwreck near Ramree Island, the Arakanese king commanded the Arab Traders to be executed. These people pleaded to the King shouting ‘Rahma’ meaning Mercy. Later they were referred to as Rohang and then Rohingyas (Chaudhary, The Rohingyas in South Asia 75). Despite the persecution and inhuman treatment in Myanmar, the Rohingyas still face different challenges in the countries where they have migrated to/taken refuge in.
The problems of Rohingyas increased in India when this issue was politicized and the BJP took an anti-Rohingya stand. Asaduddin Owaisi, the President of AIMIM party, questioned BJP’s political interference in this matter. He said, “When Tibetan refugees, Tamil refugees can stay in India, why can’t Rohingya? Why [does] the BJP government want to send them back?”
The objective of the current paper is to analyze different challenges faced by Rohingya refugees in general and their condition in Hyderabad in particular. For last few decades, the Rohingyas are silently crossing international borders in large groups, even migrating to India in search of shelter and financial prospect. In 2013, when the genocide of Rohingya Muslims by the Buddhists of Myanmar escalated, several thousand migrated from Myanmar and took shelter in neighboring countries including India (Ibrahim, The Rohingyas 86). More than 40,000 Rohingyas reached India. Around 4000 of them settled in Hyderabad, while others moved to Delhi, Jaipur, Jammu, West Bengal and Pune.
To assess the Rohingyas’ experience in Hyderabad, this ethnographic survey was conducted with a questionnaire. For the interviews, I went to Balapur, Hyderabad, which is now known as the center of Rohingya refugee camps. For this study, I randomly selected a group of women: Naseema, Khurshida, Rubeena, Noorjahan, and Jogun Bahar. While talking to them, I came across their hopes and bitter experiences as refugees.
The first thing I noticed is that around 30-40 families live in each camp, which has a head who comes forward if any visitor wants to meet or ask something. It’s their tradition that a woman talks to a woman and a man to a man. As a research scholar, I went with my husband to conduct interviews with the Rohingyas. The head of that camp met my husband and asked a woman to talk to me and to call other women if it’s required. First, I talked to a 40-year-old woman, Noor Jahan. She has three daughters and three sons. Her elder son is the chief of that camp and works as a scrap dealer. Seven years back, she came to Secunderabad by train with her children. She said, “Ten years back, my husband died after a prolonged illness in Myanmar. I run a daily-need shop. I fled to India due to violence towards Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar. To save our lives, we had no other option besides migrating to another place in search of shelter, food and life. My younger son sells fish and the youngest one goes to Telangana government school. I know more Burmese and less Hindi but no Urdu.”
I met another woman, holding a little one in her lap. She was much younger and got married at an early age. When I asked about her name and family, she said, “My name is Khurshida. I have one son, whom I gave birth to in Owaisi Hospital, Hyderabad, free of cost. Eight years ago, I migrated to India with my family and other relatives. For the first 5 years, I was living in the refugee camps of Jammu before coming to Hyderabad. Those Buddhists killed my family members when I was little. My father narrowly escaped and fled to India. Due to the Muslim majority in Hyderabad, we decided to live here and we don’t feel alienated.”
One woman near me was waiting for her turn to speak to me. She showed me a picture as I turned to her. Her name was Jogun Bahar. She said, “I have three daughters and two sons. My husband sells vegetables. Buddhists in Myanmar burnt my house. So, I migrated to India with my family and was staying in a refugee camp in West Bengal before coming to Hyderabad. In June last year, I lost my younger son, Husain Jauher, at Secunderabad railway station when I was travelling to Hyderabad from West Bengal. He got down for water, but didn’t return. I narrated this to COVA, UNHCR, Civil Liberty Society and other non-profit organizations. They found out that he was in Odisha with a woman. When they dialled her contact number, she never responded. A struggle is going on to get him back. Please help us find him.”
Another Rohingya woman, Rubeena, with a son and a daughter, said, “My husband works as a labourer who earns 300-400 per day, sometimes, nothing. In 2012-13, my grandfather died in a genocide of Muslim Rohingyas there. Thereafter, we (family and few relatives) fled from there to save our lives. In Myanmar, my parents had to pay sixty thousand to the Buddhists before my marriage. I got married to a Rohingya man in Hyderabad. I feel much more secure in Hyderabad due to Muslim majority.” Since she didn’t know Hindi and Urdu, Naseema became my translator.
Questions regarding women and children
Most women in refugee camps are widowed, pregnant or have just delivered babies in government hospitals. Since they are stateless (without citizenship) and without economic means, they have free of cost C-section in government hospitals. After that they need more health care and nutritious food. The health and sanitation of these women are often neglected because of various politically-motivated reasons. Even their children and new born face severe physical and mental health issues due to lack of nutritious food and medicine. Noor Jahan still remembers a period of migration when many children lost their lives owing to hunger.
I saw a new born baby in a woman’s hand. The baby was malnourished since his birth. When I enquired about his health, she said that the doctor asked them to undergo several blood tests. Since they didn’t have the money, they collected or asked for help from NGOs and political parties. Some of the doctors too ill-treat them because they are refugees.
A glimpse into women’s life in Myanmar
As Naseema was more fluent in Hindi, I asked her about the Rohingyas’ life in Myanmar in reference to culture, custom and other traditions. These women collectively replied, “In Myanmar, the Rohingya women are not safe. They are farmers and their lives are totally dependent on land and animals. Due to that, their economic condition is worse. It is normal for Muslim women to be molested by Buddhists every day. Rohingya families don’t send them to school for education because of fear. And, as a result of that, women are illiterate or less educated.” Naseema narrated with teary eyes how some women in her neighborhood were raped. It shows how the trauma of that horrific incident is still alive in her heart. There are some specific rules for Rohingyas in Myanmar. The Buddhists have full control over their lives and usually interfere with them. They have established offices for local command. Every family has to inform the command about every new thing happening in the family. For instance, a Muslim family has to pay around sixty thousand Myanmar Kyat (2769 INR) in the Buddhist office. They kill men who are the only bread-earners of the family. They are allowed to build only a hut and not a house; if they build houses, they are put in the jail. For renovation of their house, they need to pay money. Naseema further adds (sobbing), “Those Buddhists have devastated our lives and killed our family.”
Life in Hyderabad refugee camps
The Rohingyas camp in different places in Hyderabad and live in unhygienic conditions.
A. Social Alienation
The Rohingyas live below the poverty line. Their involvement in the society is negligible. From their narrations, I gathered that though they live in the city, some local people haven’t accepted them wholeheartedly. There are certain reasons behind this treatment. The first barrier is Rohingyas’ language as they don’t know Hindi or Urdu. Therefore, they are rarely able to communicate and have interaction with the local people. Sometimes they do try to communicate with them through their facial expression and body postures. There are some other barriers too, like their culture, way of living, food habits (as I noticed), which are completely different from our culture.
These pics I had taken while entering the camp of Rohingyas, situated in Balanagar, Hyderabad. These reveal their habitation in a slum and alienation.
Naseema in her twenties knows both Burmese and Hindi. She narrates her life in Hyderabad camps: “I have one daughter and one son. My parents came to India 7 years back. They are staying in refugee camps in Jaipur but I came to Hyderabad with my husband and children in 2015 (perhaps). Due to support from different NGOs and the local Muslim population, we chose this city. Here we lived in Hafiznagar before. We had to leave that area as the landowner asked us to leave because of construction work. We refugees get shelter on contract basis. Here too we have a three-year contract. One year has already passed. The landowner provides land to let us build our tents, called ‘slums’. Each family pays one thousand rupees every month.”
B. Educational and economic conditions
As I mentioned earlier, the refugees are not considered as the citizen of India by local people. Mazhar Husain, who looks educated among them, said, “We are often targeted as a suspicious object for the society. So, we don’t get any good job and work only as labourers, fish sellers, security guards or run small daily-need shops. Being less educated might be another reason, apart from language, for our unemployment. Due to this, we don’t have more opportunities to increase our economic well-being. Here we live in slum-like places. There is no growth in our social, economic, educational status and women’s empowerment. We are recognized as a Rohingya refugee, rather than a human being.”
C. UNHCR refugee status: Identity catastrophe
It is true that the UNHCR office in Delhi provides refugee cards to registered Rohingyas. As per COVA’s data, only 100-150 have got these cards, despite there being 40,000-45000 refugees in India (Chaudhary, The Rohingyas, 78). Khurshida, a Rohingya woman, showed me her refugee card. She said, “It requires a long process. First, we need to hold a temporary pass for three to six months. Once we pass this duration, we can get this refugee card.” After more than a year of registration, she got it. It needs to be renewed every five years. The mark of ‘refugee’ on the card raises questions about a Rohingya’s identity and citizenship. Despite living in India for seven to eight years, they are unable to obtain Indian citizenship and cast their vote. The UNHCR team collects the data door to door and sends them to Delhi office. During this process if there is no violence in their native country, they are sent back to their country, Myanmar (Choudhary, 78). A man from the refugee camp narrates an anecdote, “One man bought a bike but registered in the name of someone who had citizenship of India. In case he denies to return the bike in future to that Rohingya refugee, he can’t do anything. This is simply because he doesn’t have authority because of the refugee tag; they can’t buy anything which needs a legal certificate like NOC.”
D. NGOs and other support institutions
Rohingya Refugee camps are being supported by a collaboration of many NGOs, along with the Confederation of Voluntary Organizations (COVA), an implementation partner of UNHCR in Hyderabad. UNHCR issues refugee cards to these migrants and COVA collects the details of Rohingyas and helps the local police station to register their names for verification. Faiz-e-Trust, under guidance of Mr. Zahid Ali Khan, Editor of Siasat Urdu Daily and the stewardship of Mr. Iftekhar Husain, Secretary, have been helping Rohingya Muslims since 2017. They have arranged English, Urdu and Arabic classes for the children of Rohingya Muslims. I observed that children of almost all families go to a nearby school. Many local volunteers in Balapur, Hafiznagar and Kishanbagh associated with this NGO co-operate with the Rohingyas enthusiastically. During Ramzan, they collect a huge amount of money for use of Rohingyas’ betterment. In an article, “Rohingya Muslim Refugees’ Camp in Hyderabad: Faiz-e-Trust supplies tarpaulin”, published in The Siasat Daily, the author writes: “Mr. Iftekhar Husain, the Secretary informed that last year, the trust had spent Rs. 60,000 for providing tarpaulin sheets at camp 1, to protect them from rain. This year, the trust distributed tarpaulin sheets worth Rs. 65,000 in camp number 2, 5 and 10 so that they could be spread on 49 huts and also on a Deeni Madrasa.”
The migration of the Rohingyas to different parts of India has engendered three different categories of identity and reception. As per the first category, the earliest migrants got full protection and support from India. In the second category, they are considered as refugees, validated by cards issued by the UNHCR. The Rohingyas belonging to the third category are in a conflict zone. They are neither listed in the refugee list of the UNHCR nor recognized by the government of India. The current paper have tried to explore different dimension of Rohingyas Muslims’ social and economic conditions, women and children’s health, security and other support structure in Hyderabad. After listening to their stories, I observed the following: Fear of losing life, family, home, employment, proper healthcare are some of the reasons behind their migration from Myanmar, particularly after the genocide in 2013. Their oral narration unfolds many truths about their devastated lives. The trauma of that genocide still haunts them. Due to that, they don’t want to go back to their homeland and want to stay on in the host country, despite being perceived negatively by the people. During my fieldwork, I observed that these people were scared of media. They were afraid to show their faces, especially women and children. They blame the media for their negative images throughout the world. Earlier, these women said that the media spoiled their identities, misused their pictures and branded them as ‘Muslim refugees’ rather than human beings. Somehow I managed to convince them that my work would help to unfold the realities and problems of Rohingyas in Hyderabad. This study is an attempt to provide a glimpse into their struggle and their living conditions in the refugee camps of Hyderabad.
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Dr. Ishrat Jahan has completed her Ph.D. from Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, on “Dalit Images in Selected Urdu Short Stories”. She is currently working as Assiatnat Professor at Hyderabad Institute of Technology and Management, Hyderabad, India. Her research interest includes Dalit Studies, Oral History, Folk literature, Subaltern Studies, Trauma Literature, Urdu literature, Diaspora Studies, Comparative Literature, Human Literature, Marginal Studies, Gender Studies and Post-Colonial Studies. She has published 12 research papers in UGC approved national and International journals and has presented 8 papers at national and International conferences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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