Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya find new escape route to India

Myanmese refugees flee to the Muslim haven of Hyderabad in India, after deadly ethnic clashes with Buddhists see their villages in flames

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 4:20am

Rohingya refugees fleeing deadly ethnic clashes in Burma have discovered a crucial escape route from Myanmar into India, after Bangladesh closed its borders to the persecuted Muslims.

In the past two months, 1,000 Muslim Rohingya have streamed across the border into India through the northeastern state of Mizoram (see map), following brutal sectarian violence with Buddhists in western Myanmar.

From Mizoram, refugees have travelled to Hyderabad, where they have been helped by wealthier fellow Muslims. Others have travelled far from their home nation to southern India, while some pushed north to Muslim Pakistan, sources said.

Few options exist for Rohingya facing systematic persecution. They are denied citizenship in Myanmar, rendering them stateless, while neighbouring Bangladesh has closed its borders to the Muslim group, refusing to allow those already on its territory to be assessed for refugee status by the UN.

Other Southeast Asian nations Myanmese boatpeople might reach are similarly hostile.

But the new escape route is offering them hope.

In Hyderabad around 460 Rohingyas have so far received a sympathetic reception, and thousands more are now expected. New arrival Nurul Amin is living with other refugees in the Balapur Dargah shrine in Hyderabad, and his wife and three children. He said they escaped persecution at the hands of Buddhist mobs near Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state.

"When the moghs [Myanmese Buddhists] burnt our village and killed many Rohingyas in June, we decided to flee Myanmar. We knew Bangladesh was the only place where we could escape. But when we heard the Bangladesh border was closed we decided to enter India," said Amin.

"Including women and children, there were about 100 in our group. First we came to Paletwa [in Myanmar's Chin state] where we sold our gold jewellery to collect money for our trip.

"There we met a Chin group who charged us 2.25 million Kyats (US$2,575) and helped us cross over to Aizawl [the capital of Mizoram]," he said.

His group then travelled to Calcutta, where people suggested they went to Hyderabad, a 40 per cent Muslim city. Amin arrived during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

"People here welcomed us and gave us lots in relief. Unlike in Burma, nobody is hostile. We feel very nice. We can possibly live here in peace," he said.

Muslim NGOs and politicians are helping provide temporary places to stay, along with other aid. Refugee experts say there is a strong moral and legal argument for India protecting the Rohingyas from persecution in Myanmar.

Jacob Zenn, who previously worked with the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Malaysia, said India was the only country other than Bangladesh in a position to protect the Rohingyas because of its shared border with Myanmar's Chin State, which is close to the area affected by the ongoing ethnic violence.

He urged India, which is the world's largest democracy, to play a leadership role in showing humanitarian concern for the Rohingyas' plight and set an example for other countries.

India has previously allowed about 2,000 Rohingya who arrived via Bangladesh to be assessed for refugee status, including 60 in Hyderabad.