The Rohingya refugee crisis has been dominating the Indian news for months – both from those in support of their cause and those looking to keep them out of the nation. While it is easy to see how the plight of the Rohingyas is attention grabbing, the relationship between the community and the nation is tangential at best. Moreover, the actual crisis of unchecked illegal immigration from Bangladesh seems to have been discarded in favor of the relatively miniscule number of Rohingyas within the country.
The Rohingya refugee crisis refers to the exodus of nearly 400 thousand of Myanmar’s indigenous Rohingya population from the nation over the past two years. This was in response to a series of military pogroms against the population – involving mass murder, torture, and gangrapes that targeted men, women and children. The pogroms came on the heels of three decades of ghettoization, derecognition of citizenship, and apartheid-level persecution within the nation.
The Rohingya people, though labeled as Bengali migrants by the Myanmar government, are an indigenous ethinic group from the Rakhine state that trace their heritage back to the independent nation of Arakan from the early 15th century. While many have portrayed the Rohingyas as a religious, Islamic group, the ethnic group has had a consistent Hindu minority whom have been treated as equal members of the community – both within and without.
When Arakan was conquered by Burma (now Myanmar) in 1785, the local Rohingya population was forced to migrate to Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) by Burma’s ethnic supremacists, though conquest of both regions by the British raj permitted the Rohingyas to return to their home. Since then, the Rohingiya population have repeatedly been subject to ethnic cleansing efforts by the Burmese ethnic groups in the region – including periods during World War II, 1948, 1978, 2012, 2015, and 2017.
Between these violent outbursts, the Rohingyas have been subject to constant persecution within the region – including derecognition of their citizenship, stripping away any associated rights, targeted arrests, forced relocations, and violent oppression by the Myanmar Millitary. The United Nations has adjudged the Rohingyas as “the most persecuted peoples in the world” and condemned the actions of Myanmar as de facto ethnic cleansing and a human rights crisis.
India became involved in the refugee crisis when 40 thousand refugees, roughly a tenth of those fleeing Myanmar, sought refuge within the nation. The Indian nation is only tangentially related to the Rohingya crisis. Only joint colonial occupation and administration links India to the nations of Myanmar and Bangladesh – whom form the core of the international dispute. The vast majority of the Rohingya people have sought refuge in their historic safe harbor – Bangladesh.
The Rohingyas have only sought refuge in India to the extent they have sought it in Australia, the United States, and other global powers. There is neither a formal agreement, treaty, or international convention by which India has agreed to take in any of the refugees from any nation – least of which Myanmar or Bangladesh.
But the only relationship our nation has with the crisis is in her reputation as the largest, most stable democratic nation in the region – with a long history of welcoming and supporting oppressed peoples in the region. The mere fact that India has such a proud history of taking in refugees in the past does not hold her to do so again – but it does explain the hopes held by the Rohingya people as they approach the nation.
While the issue of Rohingya migration is currently the issue de jour, there are many reasons to think this is merely a smokescreen – designed to waste our limited political attention span. While everyone worries at the effects of a handful of refugees, the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh can continue unchallenged. This is a very real problem, as the numbers, harms, and justifications behind the Bangladeshi immigration are far more severe than any effects of taking in the limited number of Rohingya refugees that have entered the nation.
The scope of the problem of illegal immigration dwarfs the concerns of the Rohingya refugee crisis. Less than a tenth of the over 400,000 refugees fleeing Myanmar have entered India – and this group has been dispersed amongst the states of Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, and Assam. Meanwhile, the number of illegal immigrants residing in West Bengal alone have been estimated between 3.1 to 20 million in number.
Then, there is the actual harm caused by these immigrants. While the Rohingya refugees have neither ambition nor ability to do more than seek refuge in the nation, the Bangladeshi immigrants have much hire ambitions. Various investigations have demonstrated wholesale fabrication of identity documentation in West Bengal occurs for less than INR 300 – and the primary consumer of these services are Bangladeshi immigrants. Using these fabricated identity papers, the immigrants claim the full status of Indian Citizens – seeking government jobs, using state welfare resources, and participating in elections as massive vote banks.
Finally, there is the concern of justification – why the refugees and immigrants feel entitled to come to India. These Bangladeshi immigrants seek to benefit from our democratic and economic systems while bypassing the immigration laws of the land – a situation difficult to tolerate in a nation of laws. However, the Rohingyas are fleeing genuine persecution – to an extent the UN recognizes as the worst humanitarian crisis in the modern world. They run, not towards economic opportunity, but away from torture, rape, and death.Between the two, it is easy to see whom has the more justifiable claim.
The Rohingya refugee crisis may be one of the most tragic events in modern history – and the plight of the Rohingya’s is one difficult not to feel for. However, India is only tangentially related to the crisis – and has no obligation to aid the refugees beyond the will of her people. Yet, given the problem of unchecked illegal Bangladeshi immigration, the discussion of Rohingya refugees within India may be missing the forest for the trees.
By Akash Kashyap