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India: Are Rohingya refugees being targeted by arson?

Nidhi Suresh
January 20, 2023

Rohingya refugees in India say mysterious fires ravaging their settlements and upturning their lives and "have become a constant reminder that we're not wanted."

Two female Rohingya stand amidst destroyed home at refugee camp in Inida
Noor Qaeda and her family lost two of their houses at a refugee settlement in a fire Image: Nidhi Suresh/DW

India is home to an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees who escaped persecution in Myanmar.

Close to 20,000 of them are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

On January 10, a fire broke out in a Rohingya settlement in the Faridabad district of Haryana, which is 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Indian capital, New Delhi.

Around 40 Rohingya and Assamese families live in the same settlement. Most of the men in the community work as drivers or daily wage laborers.

Five houses were burned to the ground as the fire ravaged the settlement. Two of the homes belonged to Noor Qaeda's family.

Twenty-year-old Qaeda, who is seven months pregnant, was asleep with her 3-year-old son when they woke up to smoke inside their makeshift structure. Her husband ran into the house and pushed her and her son out, she told DW.

"Then the three of us stood and watched our entire life burn to ashes," she said. "There was nothing we could do."

The family lost close to 20,000 rupees (€227, $246) of their savings, clothes, groceries, utensils and mattresses.

Since the fire, Qaeda's biggest fear is that she might have a miscarriage due to the cold, hunger and stress. So far, she has lost three children.

She miscarried her first child when she was eight months pregnant. Her second daughter was stillborn and her third child died when he was eight months old.

"He died from the cold. I just couldn't keep him warm or feed him properly," she said.

Haunted by flames

Mohammad Ismail, a Rohingya refugee and a community leader, said the cause of the fire in Faridabad could not be determined.

In January 2021, Ismail's tent was burned to the ground when he and his family were not home. He also lost all his belongings.

"Fires keep following us. We don't even bother complaining to the police anymore," he said.

Research from the Social and Political Research Foundation (SPRF) India shows that between 2016 and 2021, 12 mysterious fires broke out in different Rohingya camps across India.

Four people died, many suffered serious injuries and close to 400 makeshift homes were damaged by these 12 fires.

Two of these fires happened due to a short circuit, five were most likely a result of "motivated arson," and others had unknown causes, according to SPRF.

Riya, an editor at SPRF, said that official reports typically register the cause of many fires as "unknown."

"There's a lot of discrepancies between the official narratives and what the refugees say," said Riya.

"Sometimes when the officials point to electrical short circuits as a cause, refugees have pointed out that there were no electrical connections in the first place."

Another pattern that raises suspicion, according to Riya, is that many of these fires began "mysteriously at night" — usually after people in the area "had asked the refugees to evacuate."

Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, explained that after a fire takes place, local police and activists help provide the community with some food and construction materials to build their makeshift homes. The UNHCR also helps the community reprint refugee cards.

"But if these fires are happening so regularly, why is it not being investigated properly?" he asked.

Right-wing nationalists call for Rohingya departure

In 2018, in one of the worst fires, 50 homes of Rohingya refugees were burned down after a camp in New Delhi caught fire.

A few hours after the fire broke out, Manish Chandela, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth wing, claimed responsibility for the fire.

"Yes, we did it and we do again," he tweeted.

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan has filed a case against Chandela.

"Even though a BJP member said he did it, as far as I know ... no one was apprehended for the crime," Bhushan told DW.

In 2017, several right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in northern India's Jammu and Kashmir region put up billboards reading, "Bangladeshis, Rohingyas Quit Jammu."

In Jammu, several camps battled raging fires.

India's ambiguous refugee policy

For the past five years, the Indian government has been trying to deport Rohingya refugees.

New Delhi has described the Rohingya people as a security threat, accusing them of having links to the "Islamic State" and other Muslim extremist groups.

India does not have a national policy on refugees and considers Rohingya refugees to be "illegal foreigners." India is one of the few countries that is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Over 200 Rohingya refugees are being held in different detention centers across India, according to media reports.

"This is very scary for us because if a person is jailed, you can apply for bail, get access to legal aid and there will be a trial. When we get 'detained' there is no way to get out or talk to anyone," said Sabber.

India's Home Ministry has maintained that "illegal foreigners" would be kept in a detention center until they are deported to Myanmar. 

Between 2018 and 2021, at least 17 Rohingya refugees were separated from their families and deported back to Myanmar.

This goes against the international principle of non-refoulement which prohibits the deportation of a refugee community to a territory where their life or freedom is under threat.

No official status for Rohingya in India

The non-refoulement law is a customary international law, which means it is applicable regardless of whether a country is a signatory to the refugee convention.

Ismail said that Rohingya refugees in India live in fear of deportation.

"These fires have become a constant reminder that we're not wanted here as well," he said. "We have no sense of home or belonging anywhere."

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum