Persecuted refugees are being held in jail and denied help, writes Shaikh Azizur Rahman.
When Asiya Begum heard the miraculous news in January 2009 that her husband was among the survivors of a nightmarish voyage that claimed the lives of 350 fellow Rohingya boatpeople, she felt she had been blessed by good fortune.
She learned Rashid Ahammad had been aboard a powerless hulk towed out to sea and abandoned by Thai authorities. For weeks he drifted under the tropical sun, his shipmates dying around him as their meagre supplies of food and water ran out. But then he had been rescued by the Indian coastguard and detained in India’s distant Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Ahammad would be safe at home soon, she thought.
But almost two years later, Ahammad is still languishing in jail in the Andamans, rejected as a non-resident and denied refugee status by the government in Bangladesh, where he had lived for 15 years after fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
The increasingly desperate plight of Ahammad and 169 of his fellow detainees was laid bare in a specially arranged telephone interview with the Sunday Morning Post from their jail in Port Blair.
The tearful men begged the Bangladeshi authorities to reconsider their claims, and threatened to go on a hunger strike.
They are stuck in limbo: no nation is willing to admit that they are its citizens, and their reluctant Indian hosts will not allow the group to be assessed for refugee status. Accused of no crime, they remain stuck in jail, far from their wives and children, for the foreseeable future.
Family and friends in Bangladesh are also desperate. Some say they have not been able to raise enough money to bribe Bangladeshi police into accepting the detainees’ legitimate residency claims. When pressed on the issue, a Bangladeshi diplomat said investigations into the long-running residency claims would continue.
The detainees’ plight exemplifies that of the Muslim Rohingya, who are among the world’s most shunned people.
They are denied citizenship and relentlessly persecuted in military-ruled Myanmar, but those who have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh are mostly treated as illegal immigrants, with Dhaka having long ago barred the UN refugee body, UNHCR, from granting new claims of refugee status.
“One and a half years ago Bangladeshi police conducted inquiries to find out whether my husband was a Bangladeshi resident,” said Begum in a recent telephone interview.
“As they asked, I presented the documents showing that he was Bangladeshi. Yet, the Bangladeshi government has not let him return home. For two years he has been in that Indian jail. It is extremely painful for him, and also for us.”
Efforts to repatriate Ahammad and some of the other survivors of the once-secret Thai policy of abandonment at sea have apparently been blocked by Bangladeshi authorities.
The men set sail from Bangladeshi waters in late 2008, in hope of finding jobs in Malaysia or Thailand. But when they arrived in Thai waters, they were secretly detained, behind barbed wire, on a remote island before being towed out to sea and cast adrift.
This was part of a covert policy conducted by the Thai military that was exposed by the South China Morning Post last year. The policy was eventually rescinded by the Thai government, but not before hundreds died under horrific conditions or were lost at sea.
Bangladesh claims the Andaman detainees are probably illegal immigrants from Myanmar. Officials say most of the ethnic Rohingyas in Bangladesh are not genuine refugees and are not the responsibility of the Bangladeshi government. Of the 451 boatpeople rescued in Indian waters, 38 survivors said they were from Myanmar and 413 men claimed they were from Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh only accepted just over half of this latter group were actually its citizens; 223 Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingyas with Bangladeshi residency were repatriated to Bangladesh (one man died in detention).
The detainees who say they are Myanmese are resigned to never returning home to a land where they are despised.
But the remainder, including Ahammad, have been making increasingly desperate efforts to return to their homes and families in Bangladesh.
After the Bangladeshi interior ministry declared they had no claim to residency, relatives of the men petitioned police with their identity documents.
Inside the Port Blair jail, the remaining detainees staged demonstrations to highlight their demands. After the men held hunger strikes in February and June, lasting 10 and 11 days respectively, Bangladeshi police agreed to conduct another round of investigations regarding their residency claims.
The Bangladesh High Commission in New Delhi said recently that 19 of the remaining 189 men had been found eligible to return to Bangladesh. Ahammad was not among them.
“On verification of their home addresses, as they stated on the list, and other related documents we have found that 19 of the men rescued and detained by India had legitimate rights to return to Bangladesh,” said Syed Muntasir Mamun, a diplomat with the High Commission. “Those 19 men will be taken back to Bangladesh very soon.”
Good news for the 19, as word spread in the jail, but another bitter blow for the remaining 170.
In a phone call, some of the rejected detainees said they were extremely disappointed and depressed over the decision. They demanded a “fairer” inquiry into their claims of residency, or they would launch another hunger strike soon.
Ahammad said he feared the Bangladeshi government decided he was a Myanmar-based Rohingya.
“I have my wife and five children living in Bangladesh,” he said. “For more than 12 years I worked in the town of Cox’s Bazar as a mason. I have my home in Bangladesh.”
He admitted that he was born in Myanmar but had crossed the border and settled as a refugee in Bangladesh 15 years ago, well after the government halted refugee assessments.
One young Rohingya detainee said he was born in Bangladesh, and that his mother had shown his government-issued birth certificate to the police long ago.
“Even after two inquiries by Bangladeshi police I have been found ineligible to return to Bangladesh. I think I shall never be able to return to my home,” said the youth, before breaking into sobs. The boy feared that his comments could anger Bangladeshi police and asked to remain unidentified.
Some family members of the men in Bangladesh said their claims had been denied simply because they could not pay large enough bribes to the police.
The father of one Rohingya detainee said he presented police with documents which proved that his son was a Bangladeshi.
“I had all the documents, including my son’s [Bangladesh government-issued] National ID card, in order,” said the father in a phone interview. “But one police officer who visited us during the inquiry earlier this year said that unless I paid him [a bribe of] 5,000 takas (HK$537) he would not do what was needed to help my son return to Bangladesh. I told the officer that I was sick, old and had no job of my own, and could not pay more than 3,000 takas, but he would not reduce his demand.
“I could not pay his bribe, so he refused to certify that my son was a Bangladeshi citizen and my son is still in jail.”
This man, too, asked that he remain anonymous.
One of the lucky 19 who were ruled Bangladeshi residents was Abdus Shukur, 30, who said he hoped to be reunited with his wife, Kohinoor Akhtar, in Cox’s Bazar within weeks.
“More than two years of my life have gone by in this jail and during this period my family has suffered immensely,” he said by phone from the jail. “but many of my companions died at sea. I am lucky that I am still alive.”
The Rohingya ethnic group has been the subject of an ongoing crackdown on illegal immigration by Bangladeshi authorities near Cox’s Bazar since the start of 2010.
The UNHCR has been barred by Bangladesh from registering any Rohingya arrivals as refugees since 1992 even though they continue to flee Myanmar in such numbers that their population in Bangladesh has swelled to an estimated 200,000 plus.
In an attempt to keep a check on their population, hundreds were arrested and jailed this year. Some were even pushed back to Myanmar.
Bangladeshi Police officer Jasimuddin last year conducted inquiries into some of the Port Blair detainees’ residency claims. He said that “a big number” of the 170 rejected detainees were most likely illegal settlers in Bangladesh.
“During inquiries around Teknaf [in Cox's Bazar district] relatives of more than half of the men could not produce any documents showing that those detained in India were citizens or legal residents of Bangladesh,” said Jasimuddin.
“In some cases we even found the men had never lived at the Bangladeshi addresses which, they claimed, were their homes. We assumed that they were Burmese Rohingyas, with no connection to Bangladesh at all. We have to be very careful before we certify one as Bangladeshi.”
However, a Bangladeshi diplomat admitted that some of the 170 men probably had residency rights.
“We will seek another round of police inquiries into the 170 cases of the men detained in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” said the India-based diplomat, who did not want to be identified.
“We believe some more among them may have legitimate rights to return to Bangladesh.”
Source: Burma Net News