The Wire: ‘Separated and Detained’: Will Biden and Modi Discuss the Plight of Rohingya Refugees in India?

This piece was originally published in The Wire.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi sits down with President Joe Biden for an official State dinner on June 22, the conversation will surely be filled with pleasantries about the mutually beneficial relations between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

Biden will likely talk about China, climate change, and human rights. But what may be absent from the discussion is the hypocrisy of India’s stance on refugees, particularly the Rohingya genocide survivors of Myanmar.

Not discussing the Rohingya crisis would fly in the face of both India’s active engagement on the Global Compact on Refugees and the United States’ commitment to build a path out of what it recognised as genocide, for the Rohingyas.

It will also be a missed opportunity to expose India’s inhumane treatment of Rohingyas and other refugee groups.

It will also be a missed opportunity to expose India’s inhumane treatment of Rohingyas and other refugee groups.

India has a rich history of providing refuge to various groups. However, it has arbitrarily detained and deported Rohingya refugees, and denied exit permission to those who had opportunities to resettle in other countries. India’s policies are separating children from their parents, siblings, and adding trauma to an already traumatised population.

The Azadi Project and Refugees International recently conducted several interviews with the Rohingya refugees in India.

Senwara, a 13-year-old girl, described meeting her father for the first time in November 2021. Her father had fled violence in Myanmar in 2009 with a plan to find a safe place to bring his then pregnant wife. After 12 years of being through the grind of refugee camps, resettlement offices, asylum, and citizenship processes, he became an American citizen and came back to India for his wife and daughter. There was one last step left – getting an exit permit from the Indian government.

“We can only help you if you have a passport or a valid visa to show your entry into India,” Senwara remembers being told by an Indian immigration official.

The Rohingyas are a persecuted population from Myanmar and have been denied citizenship by the regime there. Most of them do not have a passport and have crossed international borders without visas. Senwara and her mother didn’t have a passport either and eventually their US visa expired.

Senwara’s family is not alone. At least 40 other Rohingya and other families with visas for the US and Canada have been denied permission to exit India.

Ironically, even as India is not letting Rohingya refugees with visas for third countries exit, it is unlawfully detaining hundreds of them in inhuman conditions. Among those detained is a 22-year-old woman, who was separated from her infant son Salman three years ago. Her sister, Sabera Khatoon, has moved the Delhi high court to reunite them.

“My sister (Salman’s mother) hasn’t seen the sun for days. She is not allowed outside and is given very little to eat. They are all falling sick in there,” says Khatoon. Her sister is in a detention centre in West Delhi.

The Indian government says that it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has declared cards distributed to refugees by the UN Refugee Agency “of no consequence” when detaining Rohingya or denying them exit visas. But India has continued to serve on the UNHCR’s executive committee since 1995 and its selective alienation of UNHCR when it comes to Rohingya refugees exposes its anti-Muslim xenophobia.

The Modi government’s ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim narrative has made the Rohingyas, who are Muslims, an easy target.

India hosts around two lakh refugees and asylum seekers from other countries and around 20,000 Rohingyas. While some refugees, namely those from Sri Lanka and Tibet, have received access to government services and employment, the Rohingyas have been denied even the most basic protection and services.

At least 20 Rohingya refugees have been deported back to Myanmar. Sending refugees back to a country where they face a fear of persecution is a violation of the international principle of non-refoulement to which India is committed through various international agreements. Human rights lawyers in India argue that India is still bound by its constitution and other international conventions to protect refugees.

The Biden-Modi summit is an opportunity to address this hypocrisy.

As it hosts the G20 this year, and later participates in the Global Refugee Forum, India is conscious of its international standing. India cares about its international reputation and its relationship with the US.

Therefore, it should be in the interest of India to protect refugees, not revictimise them. Biden, in welcoming Modi to the White House, should make that abundantly clear and push for Rohingya children like Senwara and Salman to be immediately reunited with their parents.

Priyali Sur is the founder and executive director of The Azadi Project. She has built and implemented programmes across Europe, Africa and South Asia, helping refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Niger, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. 

Dan Sullivan is the director for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East at Refugees International. He focuses on Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan, and other areas affected by mass displacement. 

Featured Image: A Rohingya Muslim refugee man poses for a photo inside his makeshift room set up at a refugee camp in New Delhi, India on June 17, 2023. (Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)