India's Rohingya refugees struggle with hatred, fear as first group is expelled
Hours after Indian TV channels flashed that the country was deporting seven Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar, Sahidullah said he received a call from his nephew: "Uncle, please get us out of here. They will send us back too."
Sahidullah, a Rohingya living in the far north of India after fleeing what he called persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2010, said his relative, Sadiur Rahman, 40, was lodged in one of several detention centres for illegal immigrants in the distant northeastern state of Assam.
Rahman, he said, had been incarcerated with his brother and eight other relatives since being caught in 2012 at a railway station as they fled to India via Bangladesh. Sahidullah had taken the same route two years earlier, but like many others had escaped detection.
He said Rahman made the phone call when he was taken out for a routine medical check-up on Oct 3, the day when India moved the seven Rohingya men out of a similar detention centre and took them to the border.
They were handed to the Myanmar authorities the next day, the first ever such deportations of Rohingya here, spreading panic among an estimated 40,000 refugees who have fled to India from its neighbour.
About 16,500 of the refugees, including Sahidullah, have been issued identity cards by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that it says helps them "prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation".
India says it does not recognise the cards and has rejected the UN's stand that deporting the Rohingya violates the principle of refoulement - sending back refugees to a place where they face danger.
"Anyone who has entered the country without a valid legal permit is considered illegal," said A. Bharat Bhushan Babu, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs. "As per the law, anyone illegal will have to be sent back. As per law they will be repatriated."
In recent days, Reuters interviewed dozens of Rohingya in two settlements, one in the northern city of Jammu and a smaller one in the capital, Delhi, and found communities who feel they are being increasingly vilified.
Many now fear Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government is about to act on its stated position - that it wants to deport all Rohingya Muslims from the country. With a general election due by next May, they worry that targeting them will be a populist tactic used by Modi and his allies.
Sahidullah - who like many Rohingya goes by only one name - is not just worried about his detained relatives but also his family living in a mainly Hindu region of India's only Muslim-dominated state, Jammu & Kashmir, in the country's northern tip.
The restive Himalayan state that borders Pakistan and is home to Muslim separatists battling Indian rule, has the biggest population of Rohingya in the country with around 7,000 people scattered in various makeshift settlements, largely in the Jammu region. -REUTERS