Indian police have detained more than 150 Rohingya refugees found living illegally in the northern territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and begun deporting them to Myanmar, two officials said on Sunday.
Dozens of Rohingya, a Muslim minority population, are now in a makeshift holding center at Jammu’s Hira Nagar jail. They were identified after local authorities conducted biometric and other tests on hundreds of people to verify their identities.
“The drive is part of an exercise to trace foreigners living in Jammu without valid documents,” said one of the two officials, who declined to be named as they are not authorized to speak to the media.
“We have started the process of deportation of these refugees,” the official added.
In 2019, the Indian government split the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, revoking its former limited autonomy and increasing New Delhi’s control over the Muslim-majority region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and a security risk, and has ordered that thousands of them living in scattered settlements be identified and deported.
The Myanmar military has been accused of committing atrocities including mass killings and rape against the Muslim minority population, forcing nearly a million people to flee. Most now live in ramshackle refugee camps on the border with Bangladesh. The UN has recommended that top military officials face genocide charges.
Myanmar denies accusations of genocide and says the army was fighting a legitimate counter-insurgency campaign.
India is home to one of the largest concentrations of Rohingya outside Bangladesh. Rohingyas in the country have said conditions are not conducive for them to return to Myanmar after fleeing violence and persecution over the years.
But India has rejected the United Nations’ position that deporting the Rohingya violates the international legal principle of refoulement – sending refugees back to a place where they face danger.
The Indian government has also argued that India is not signatory to the specific UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A total of 148 countries are signatories to one of these two legal agreements that outline the rights of refugees and are meant to protect them.
The Rohingya living in Jammu said they were concerned about the weekend’s detentions and the threat of deportation.
“We will go back when peace returns to our country,” said Sufeera, 28. She said her uncle and brother had been sent to the holding center, leaving her alone with her children.
Another refugee, 48-year-old Sadiq, said members of his family had also been detained. “We have been told that we will be deported,” he said. “They took mother and father … Who will take care of them?”
This comes as Myanmar veers deeper into crisis. The military junta, which seized power on February 1, has occupied hospitals and conducted violent raids to consolidate its control of the country. Meanwhile, mass protests against the coup and military rule have continued for weeks on end. More than 54 people have died in crackdowns on protests, including many teenagers and young people, according to the UN.