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Home a distant dream for Rohingya Muslim refugees

A Rohingya Muslim family outside a learning centre for the children of refugees run by the UNHCR at Balapur area of the Old City in Hyderabad. Photo: Yunus Y. Lasania/Mint

By Yunus Y. Lasania, Live Mint

They say home is where the heart is, but what of those who have nowhere to go? Such is the story of the 16,500 Rohingya Muslim refugees in India

Hyderabad: They say home is where the heart is, but what of those who have nowhere to go? The question often haunts Jaffer Aslam, 36, a Rohingya Muslim refugee living in Hyderabad for over three years. While his life is at least not in danger here, Aslam still has a hard time finding work, often coming back home empty-handed.

Aslam, who lives in the Balapur area of the Old City, said he earns not more than Rs500 a day, which is mostly spent on food for him and his family, which includes three children. “We had to flee our home in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, because of the violence against Rohingya Muslims. At least here we are safe,” he added.

Nur Alam, 21, also remembers how he similarly had to escape by crossing the border in Myanmar (to India) due to what he calls persecution of his community by the local police and administration in 2012. “At least no one says anything to us here. We are safe here for as long as we have cards. I don’t think it will be possible for us to return,” he stated.

Like Alam and Aslam, most of the men work as labourers in construction sites around their camps, earning anything between Rs300 to Rs500. While work is not guaranteed every day, it’s enough to get by, both said. The women, however, were unwilling to speak. Most of them remain in their homes, said the two men.

More than a week ago, the city police received a communication from the centre asking it to keep a check on the Rohingya refugees staying illegally in Hyderabad, owing to security issues. The police had been asked to ensure that only those with valid United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) cards remain in the camps, which have about 3,800 Rohingyas living in and around the Old City areas of Hyderabad.

Following that, the south zone officials under the Hyderabad police commissionerate detained nearly a dozen Rohingyas for not having valid UNHCR cards. “We took their details, fingerprints and informed the UNHCR about it. Some of them had managed to make local identity cards like voter ID and even Aadhaar cards,” said south zone deputy commissioner of police, V. Satyanarayana.

Satyanarayana added that a search operation will be conducted soon in the camps to weed out refugees who don’t have UNHCR cards. “We have also booked half a dozen criminal cases (since their arrival in Hyderabad) involving Rohingya Muslims for various crimes,” he added.

“If I had a bike like yours and would be seen in my village, the police or other locals would ask us where we got the money from or how we managed to buy it. It was that bad,” recalled Alam. He and his friend Alam, another refugee, got married after arriving in Hyderabad. It is very difficult for bachelors to get accommodation in the refugee camps, they added.

In Hyderabad, the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), a non-governmental organization (NGO), helps the Rohingyas obtain UNHCR cards, which are valid for two years. “Once we are approached, we prepare documentation for the process, which takes three months or more (to get a card). It is a very rigorous process of three interviews and investigation, after which a card is issued,” said Mazher Hussain, executive director, COVA.

In response to a query from Mint, the UNHCR in New Delhi said that as of now, there are about 16,500 Rohingya Muslim refugees registered with it in India. They are issued long-term visas which ease their access to public services, bank accounts and employment in the private sector. The UNHCR advocates that the government long-term visas and refugee cards continue to be recognized to facilitate their access to these services and opportunities while in asylum.