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Refugee rights

May 21, 2012

The Indian government has issued visas to Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya people, who campaigned for weeks demanding refugee status from New Delhi and the UNHCR.

Image: AP

Mohammed Noor, who fled Myanmar few years ago and now works as a daily wage laborer in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was part of the campaign of more than 2,500 Rohingya people demanding refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Indian government. After a month-long standoff, the Indian government finally extended the visas of the members of the Rohingya community.

“We left Burma (Myanmar) few years ago and ended up in India. We seek refugee status," Noor told DW, who is now relieved that at least his visa has been extended and that he does not have to go back to Myanmar.

Over the years, thousands of Rohingyas - a Muslim minority group in Myanmar - have fled to India fearing persecution in their country. Most of these people come from Myanmar's coastal Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.

According to the Human Rights Watch, an estimated 100,000 refugees from Myanmar reside in the north-eastern parts of India.

Long-term visas

“Now that they (Rohingyas) have been given long-term visas, they can stay in India and seek asylum," a UNHCR official told DW on condition of anonymity, adding that this would give Rohingya children an access to public education and other facilities.

A Burmese Rohingya refugee
Most Rohingya people reside in India's north-eastImage: AP

According to the UNHCR, around 1,800 Rohingyas in India have already claimed asylum. The Indian government has issued them an identity card to prevent their forcible expulsion to Myanmar, a country where their freedom is in peril. However, experts say it may take years before Rohingya's get the legal refugee status in India.

India is not a signatory to the United Nations' convention on the status of refugees, which defines who qualifies as a refugee in the host country. Since there is no national law in India too that deals with refugees, the Indian government is dealing with individual cases of the Rohingya people.

Little has changed for Myanmar's ethnic minorities

The Burmese government has embarked on a series of political and economic reforms after decades of army rule, however, Myanmar's rights activists say little has changed for the ethnic minorities in the country.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh stand outside their shelter at an Indonesian Navy base
India is not a signatory to the UN refugee conventionsImage: AP

Dr Tint Swe, a former member of parliament for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, who now lives in exile in New Delhi, told DW that it was still not safe for Rohingyas to go back to Myanmar.

“These refugees face religious persecution and restrictions in Myanmar. Thousands of Myanmar's Rohingyas are fleeing to Malaysia, India and Singapore. A majority of them cannot go back because it is not safe for them back home. So, the only hope for them is the option of settling down in another country,” Tint said.

Author: Murali Krishnan

Editor: Shamil Shams