A five-month-old girl has died after Indian forces fired teargas at Rohingya refugees trying to escape a detention center where they have been held for more than two years.
Videos – sent to Rohingya activists by detainees at Hiranagar jail, now operating as a holding center – appear to show women and men amid clouds of teargas. About 270 Rohingya detainees at the centre, in the Indian-administered territory of Jammu & Kashmir, have been on hunger strike since April over their detention.
The Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, which campaigns for members of Myanmar’s Muslim minority living in India, said the girl failed to receive treatment after inhaling the gas last week.
The group’s director, Sabber Kyaw Min, said Rohingya were facing increased hostility in India, where they are being subjected to hate speech and harassment by the authorities ahead of elections next year. He said another 200 Rohingya refugees were detained in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Monday.
“These people are on hunger strike,” said Sabber Kyaw Min. “They’re saying ‘we are refugees, why are you detaining us and not giving us any information [about our release]?’
“They are families in detention – they’ve done nothing wrong.”
The authorities told Indian media that the baby’s death was not related to the incident at the centre.
The Rohingya at Hiranagar were detained in March 2021, accused of living in India illegally, despite their status being recognized by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Many fear for their future, especially after two Rohingya – including a woman initially separated from her family – were deported from the center to Myanmar last year.
About 40,000 Rohingya live in India, but the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has begun preparing to deport them back to Myanmar.
A Rohingya refugee detained at a center in India’s north-eastern Assam state, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said he was sentenced to a year’s detention for entering India without documentation but has been held for two years beyond his sentence and is not being allowed to leave. He said about 100 other Rohingya have similarly been held there for years.
“They’re treating us like we’ve committed some big crimes against humanity. I prefer to be free – I can’t stay here another second,” he said. “At least if I die in my country I would prefer it.”
Priyali Sur, founder of the Azadi Project, which supports minority groups, said Rohingya were often detained without notice after being called to police stations under the pretext of signing paperwork.
“Nobody tells them why they are being detained. They’re not given access to any lawyers; they don’t even know that they can get legal recourse. [Their detention] is indefinite,” she said.
Even those who want to leave India, and had the option of resettlement in other countries where they had relatives, were being denied exit visas, she added.
Sabber Kyaw Min said the Rohingya detained in Uttar Pradesh on Monday had been living in the area for 10 years without any problems.
“We want to request the government of India: please save us temporarily; we accept the rule of law in India, we accept peace.
“Our community are survivors; they just want safety,” said Sabber Kyaw Min.