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The Plight of 40,000 Rohingya Refugees in India



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Guest post by Radhika Bhalerao, a Research Fellow at Prajnya Trust, India. Her research interests lie in the area of migration, gender, violence and criminal justice. Radhika has recently graduated from Leiden University and is currently researching the topic of conceptualizations of violence and abuse in intimate relationships. In this post she assesses the approach of securitization used by the Indian government in its decision to deport Rohingya refugees from India.


India has recently been under fire from the UN and other members of the international community for its decision to deport 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees. In response, a plea has been filed by two Rohingyas in the Supreme Court of India and is awaiting hearing. Rohingya are an Islamic group of ethnic Indo origins and stand today as one of the most persecuted communities in the world. The Rohingya-Myanmar conflict spans back to the 1940s. Over 719,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since. Following the policy of ‘Burmanisation’, the military has been accused of some of the worst forms of systematic abuse in the country. According to the Myanmar government, in October 2016, coordinated attacks by at least two hundred and fifty Rohingya assailants killed nine policemen at border posts. This triggered a wave of violence by the military, leading to the current mass exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar. While Rohingyas are fleeing systematic ethnic cleansing of its people from Myanmar, official government sources from Myanmar have claimed that the military is fighting a ‘terrorist threat’. India, at the same time, has made a joint statement with Myanmar to ‘solve the terrorist problem’, thus achieving two objectives. First, to secure its relations with Myanmar; and second to help solidify the image of the ‘security threat’ that the ‘Muslim illegal immigrant’ poses to the ‘Indian’ citizen.

India-Myanmar relations have developed from largely neutral, to extending moral support to the pro-democracy movement, to a highly pragmatic and cordial relationship with its military (now ex) junta rulers. Routray enumerates the primary drivers behind the redrafting of India-Myanmar relations. Firstly, a realization on India’s part of the amount of control that the military has (and will have) in Myanmar, coupled with the awareness that western embargos have failed to weaken its prowess. Second, India requires sustained cooperation from the government and military of Myanmar in its efforts against insurgency movements in its northeastern regions. Third, India is wary of the Chinese influence in Myanmar, in particular its military ambitions as well as its increasing economic assistance and investment in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar. Finally, for the current government’s ‘Act East Policy’ (a follow up on the ‘Look East Policy’ from the 90s ), Myanmar could be one of the key players in bolstering India’s standing as a regional power and tempering China’s influence in the region. In this context, it is strategically important for India to stand by Myanmar.  Simultaneously, this strategy serves another important purpose, that of reifying the image of the currently designated ‘other’. ‘Historically, India has been welcoming of refugees. Even though it is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, India’s treatment of refugees has been broadly in line with various international conventions. In recent years, however, it has become selective in the application of this treatment. It has also increasingly adopted a discourse around the dialectics of internal security, cultural identity and over-consumption of resources, i.e., a discourse of securitization. More importantly, this discourse is selective in its application and pertains to a certain kind of migrant: the ‘Muslim illegal immigrant’. India’s ‘Detect-Delete-Deport’ policy evidences this reality.

India has faced considerable challenges, particularly in its northeastern regions, with regards to the reception and treatment of refugees from its bordering countries. The biggest of these has been Bangladesh, with the 2001 census reporting that three out of the five million recorded migrants originate from there. Other countries contributing significantly to this figure were Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. India has also been host to about 50,000 to 100,000 migrants from Myanmar who, for the most part, belong to the Chin ethnic minority group and as such do not face deportation in the same way Rohingyas do. Unlike the Buddhist refugees from Tibet, Chin refugees are not officially recognized as refugees and often spend their lives in squalid conditions, particularly as residents of New Delhi. India also has a small number of migrants from Myanmar belonging to the Kachin, Arakan and Burman ethnic groups. However, it is only the Islamic group of Rohingya refugees that currently at the risk of deportation from India. To make matters worse, India has not only mobilized its paramilitary forces, the Assam Rifles, but also the state police force of Manipur to prevent any more Rohingyas from crossing the India-Myanmar border.

India’s selective-securitization approach is also apparent in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 to exclude Muslim (illegal) migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh from being eligible for citizenship. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016 the central government issued notifications to exempt certain groups of (illegal) migrants (Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists) from the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport Act (Entry into India) Act, 1920 some of which prescribe imprisonment for immigration violations for up to five years and deportation. Policies such as these lay down guidelines for identifying the ‘legitimate refugee’ as distinguished from the ‘illegal immigrant’ and also help delineate the image of who an ‘acceptable citizen’ of India is.

India has been known for its conglomeration of diverse cultures and religions but also, for its deeply embedded political games based on identity. The current tide of this politics is presumptuously creating a homogenous class of the ‘Indian’ which does not include the Muslim. It is attempting to redefine what it means to be an ‘Indian’ and reinvent the criteria for membership, Indian politicians, not unlike some at the international level (e.g. Trump, Le Pen, Farage), are raising questions of patriotism and commitment to the nation (or rather nationalism). They are also successfully answering them with the help of security agencies. While not defining who an ‘Indian’ is, politicians define who is not. ‘Indians’, for example,  do not eat beef, are closely attached to the motherland and have disdain for their neighbour, Pakistan.

This is most visible in the discourse surrounding the securitization of the Rohingya migrants. Forwarding ‘speculative truths’ and shared knowledge with security agencies, Rohingya ‘illegal immigrants’ have been linked to Pakistani jihadists. They are squared off as a threat and distinguished from genuine asylum seekers. This seems to be a popular securitization technique, that is, ‘to transform structural difficulties and transformations into elements permitting specific groups to be blamed, even before they have done anything, simply by categorizing them, anticipating profiles of risk from previous trends, and projecting them by generalization upon the potential behaviour of each individual pertaining to the risk category’. Further, the link between Pakistani jihadists and Rohingya migrants (or Muslim undocumented immigrants from other neighbouring countries) contributes to solidifying the image of the ‘Indian’ mentioned above.

It is truly unfortunate that 40,000 stateless people of, recognizably, one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in the world find themselves caught in very dangerous ways in the middle of India’s current identity politics.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bhalerao, R. (2017) The Plight of 40,000 Rohingya Refugees in India. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/09/when-their-need (Accessed [date])

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