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A Peep into Rohingya Refugees Life in Chennai

Saturday September 23, 2017 11:10 AM, Syed Ali Mujtaba,

Rohingya Refugees

There is much attention on the plight of the Roghingas in the media these days. Rohingas are an ethnic population of over one million Sunni Muslims living in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine state.

They are being persecuted by their own government and the United Nations has called them as the world’s most persecuted community.

Since last one decade, scores of Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar after the repeated sectarian violence orcastrated by the Burmese government that has denied them citizenship under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Act.

In the current wave of persecution, approximately 400, 000 Rohingas has fled their country to Bangladesh, which is finding it hard to shelter such a large number of human populations having meager resources.

As a part of humanitarian assistance the Government of India has launched “Mission Insanyat” to help the Rohingas living in the camps in Bangladesh and it is providing them the necessities of life.

Even when all these are happening, some hostile statements are being made by the Central Ministers against the Rohingas fleeing their country.

India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called Rohingas as infiltrators who can’t be granted refugee status and to be deported to Maynmar as early as possible. Roghingas are seen as jihadis having links with Islamic state.

This has sent shock wave in the country, because this is quite contrary to the principled stand that India use to take on such issues once upon a time.

According to the Factsheet India issued by the UNHCR in May 2016 there are 19,142 Myanmarese refugees in India. Among them there could be approximately 10,000 Rohingyas living in India.

The Rohingyas are concentrated in New Delhi, Jammu, Rajasthan, Hyderabad, and, to a lesser extent, in Tamil Nadu and in Kerala.

All of them have come from Bangladesh utilizing the services of ‘dalals’ who have contacts in various parts of India.

As far as Rohingas in Chennai are concerned let’s have a peep into their lives at Kelambakkam refugee camp here in Chennai.

They are of 2012 lot when there was similar kind of persecution in Maynmar and Rohingas had fled their country and first reached Bangladesh and then to India.

They are living here in a ramshackle government-run cyclone shelter where years ago there used to be Sri Lankan Tamils living.

There are about 94 Rohingya refugees staying and belong to 19 families comprising 47 children, 25 women and 22 men.

Rohingas are mild-dark complexioned people and several of them are wheatish in color. They can pass off as local Tamils but for their distinctive ‘Rohingya’ language. They can speak a mix of Urdu and Hindi and thats what helps them to communicate with the local people here.

This group of 94 people had made an arduous journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh by boat and then on foot to cross the West Bengal border to come to India. And then they moved to Kolkatta to board a train to Chennai.

It was a hell of a journey for them all the way from Myanmar to Chennai. All along, they had to shell out a huge amount of money to the brokers (dalals), to make sure they reach safely into India.

Although they arrived in Chennai in 2012, their “tryst with nomadic life” ended when police caught them by the end of 2014.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) intervened and issued notice to the Government of Tamil Nadu seeking clarification on the subject.

The Collector of Kancheepuram rose to the occasion and provided them accommodation in the cyclone shelter in Kelambakkam with a condition that they should not associate them with local politics or political parties.

The Rohingyas in the Kelambakkam camp are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and they are issued a refugee card which lists out their individual particulars like name with photograph, sex, age, date of arrival etc.

These refugees have registered with the Foreigners’ Registration Office (Police Superintendent), in Kancheepuram and have a Residential Permit i8s issued by the authorities there. Their refugee card is a guarantee of their legal status.

While the Kelambakkam camp provides a roof over the heads of these refuges, it lacks basic amenities. There is only one water tap outside the main building and there only two toilets for all. The main hall where the refugees live is partitioned by hanging old clothes and each family occupies a space measuring 5’ by 5’.

They have apportioned the space for each of the family by turning clothes as “walls,” with things strewn around and fly swarming everywhere.

The open veranda is full of dirt and the monsoon season has made the condition much worse. The refuges take their bath and wash their clothes outside. Each family has a traditional earthen kitchen on the open ground where they use twigs and fire wood.

When the Rohingyas settled down in Kelambakkam they numbered only 14, but as the news spread that they have a permanent home, others joined them and today they number 94.

The refugees live in a ground plus one shelter known as ’round building’ indicating its circular shape. While six families live on ground floor, eight are on the first floor and five have put up shacks on open ground around the building.

Electricity bill is borne by the government and water is available throughout the day. The shelter is opposite the local Government Primary Health Centre where they can get medical assistance. There is a local school nearby where their children go for studying.

In the shelter there is a mosque in a makeshift hut that is separate from the living area. Here, they offer prayer five times every day. The local Muslims are lending a helping hand to the refugees and so are some NGOs, and philanthropists who are showing their magnanimity towards them.

The refugees, many of whom are skilled workers do odd jobs including rag picking, daily wage laborer, shoe polishing etc. to eke out a living. Some of them even though have specific set skills like driving can’t do so without having license.

The UNCHR is a pillar of strength to the Rohingas refugees in Chenai. It maintains cordial relations with the Department of Immigration and government of India

The Chennai office of the UNHCR is confident that as and when validity of the refugee card expires, they could easily get them extended. According to UNCHR, Rohingas can peacefully live here till such atmosphere is created in their home country.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at]

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