NEW DELHI (AP) — A day after the U.N. chief voiced concern about Indian plans to potentially deport tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees, an Indian government official said Wednesday that authorities are only working to identify those who fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar — not expel them.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in various parts of India, though fewer than 15,000 are registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Last week, India's Home Affairs Minister Kiren Rijiju told lawmakers that state authorities had been asked to identify and deport illegal immigrants, including but not only Rohingya. A ministry memo sent Aug. 8 to the states warns that immigrants are susceptible to recruitment by "terrorist" organizations and "not only infringe on the rights of Indian citizens but also pose grave security challenges."
On Wednesday, a Home Ministry official said worries of Rohingya being shipped back to Myanmar were overblown, and that the government was only trying to count and identify how many refugees were in the country. Contrary to what was said in last week's memo, the official said no decisions had been made about deporting any refugees. He refused to give his name as he was not authorized to speak with media.
A day earlier, the head of the United Nations said any plan to send refugees back to a country where they face persecution was cause for alarm, according to his spokesman. "Obviously, we have our concerns about the treatment of refugees," said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. It was not immediately clear if Rohingya who had yet to be registered with the UNHCR would receive any of the same protections.
The Rohingya face severe discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and are the targets of violence in Rakhine state, where security forces have been accused of abuses against them. They have long been denied citizenship, freedom of movement and basic rights in Myanmar.
In recent years, tens of thousands have fled either to neighboring Bangladesh, India and other countries, where they are often seen as illegal immigrants — even those who have lived there for decades.
Many who have come to India have settled in areas with large Muslim populations, including the southern city of Hyderabad, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the capital of New Delhi and the disputed Himalayan region of Jammu.
Earlier this year, a body of traders and industrialists launched a campaign to "identify and kill" the thousands of Rohingya settled in Hindu-dominated Jammu.
"We did issue a threat to them. But we didn't execute it, because the government of India promised action against them," said Rakesh Gupta, who heads the body. "The government said they (Rohingya) would be deported from the state soon, and we accordingly withdrew the threat. But we will review the situation soon."
Myanmar's presidential spokesman said the government had yet to receive any official notification of planned deportations.
"The Indian government had told the Myanmar ambassador about the deportation of the refugees," spokesman Zaw Htay said. "But as to the government, we have not been told directly by the Indian government, and that's why we cannot tell anything yet and the issue is still under discussion."
Rights activists said any discussion of moving Rohingya back to Myanmar was upsetting.
"Instead of deportations, India should be discussing the issue with Myanmar and Bangladesh with a view to resolving the situation in Rakhine state, ending discrimination, and holding soldiers accountable" for an alleged campaign of collective punishment that for months has targeted the Rohingya with deadly violence and rape, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
"India should be showing leadership in protecting rights, and has the responsibility now to ensure the safety of the Rohingya refugees who have sought shelter in India," she said.
Associated Press writers Esther Htusan in Yangon, Myanmar, and Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.