For the past two months, the fate of 62 Rohingya Muslims including 21 children, the first batch among hundreds behind bars in Bengal jails, who were able to send application for refugee status to United Nations high commissioner for Refuges (UNHCR), hangs in a balance.
They were persecuted in Myanmar, fled to Bangladesh and then ultimately landed up at Bengal borders only to languish in jails for years. It was when an international NGO could reach them behind bars that their plight was revealed and they could apply.
“They fled persecution in Myanmar where they faced horrific conditions. Somehow traveled to Bangladesh and then landed up in jails of West Bengal. In May our organisation was able to meet them behind bars, hear their stories and then they applied for refugee status. We forwarded it to UNHCR, who referred the cases to MHA. But till date nothing has happened,” said Madhurima Dhanuka consultant with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an international NGO working with UNHCR.
“We are awaiting a response from ministry of home affairs. Without which we cannot move,” said a source at UNHCR.
It was in May when the NGO officials who work with UNHCR managed to convince Bengal jail authorities and visited groups of Rohingya inmates behind bars. They managed to interview 34 adults and 16 children in Balurghat jail and 7 adults and five children in Berhampur jail. Some of them are languishing since 2011.
After the interview they applied for refugee status, which was forwarded along with their case studies with the UNHCR office in Delhi.
According to UNHCR one has to appeal to its office in Delhi for refugee status. The individual has to fill up a registration for after which he is granted the status of ‘person of concern’. UNHCR then conducts an interview of the person, after which it decides to grant it refugee status, followed by settlement within the community.
However, for Rohingyas the problem is that they sneak into India through Bengal from Bangladesh. Security forces detain them as illegal Banlgadeshi immigrant. They then languish in different jails of West Bengal.
“They cannot reach UNHCR. Most of them identify themselves as Bangladeshis so that they can be pushed back to the neighbouring country after serving jail term. Then once again try to sneak in and reach Delhi. It is a vicious circle,” added Dhanuka.
In December 2014 and March 2015 teams from UNHCR visited Bengal to organize sensitization programmes for jail officials and police officers. This was aimed towards proper identification of the Rohingyas and facilitating them to appeal to UNHCR for refugee status.
According to UN Rohingyas are most persecuted minorities which thousands forced out of Myanmar. Many of them stranded in seas and tried to enter South East Asian countries. Intelligence agencies stated that a sizeable section tried to venture in India through Bengal-Bangladesh border. Hundreds were jailed in the process since they have no valid papers. Some were able to infiltrate in Bengal.