India's decision to forcibly return Rohingya refugees sparked concern with Human Rights Watch. (Reuters)
India should abide by its international legal obligations and should not forcibly return ethnic Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, where they face persecution, without fairly evaluating their claims as refugees, a global human rights group has said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) cited Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju's statement to Parliament that "the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas", noting that there were around 40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in India.
"India has a long record of helping vulnerable populations fleeing from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans, and Tibetans," HRW's South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said.
The Rohingya is a Muslim minority predominately from western Myanmar.
"Indian authorities should abide by India's international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees," she said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had also expressed concern about India's plans to deport Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, underlining that they should not be returned to countries where they fear persecution once they are registered.
Ms Ganguly said without the willingness or capacity to evaluate refugee claims, the Indian government should put an end to any plans to deport the Rohingya, and instead register them so that they can get an education and health care and find work.
"Most of the Rohingya were forced to flee egregious abuse, and India should show leadership by protecting the beleaguered community and calling on the Burmese government to end the repression and atrocities causing these people to leave," she added.
HRW said about 16,500 Rohingya living in India are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), while the government contends that tens of thousands are unregistered.
The group said Mr Rijiju's statement does not accurately reflect India's obligations under international refugee law.
While India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by customary international law not to forcibly return any refugee to a place where they face a serious risk of persecution or threats to their life or freedom, it said.
The Rohingya are largely living in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan.
HRW said it has extensively documented the rampant and systemic violations against the ethnic Rohingya in Burma.
The estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, most of whom live in Myanmar's Rakhine State, have long been targets of government discrimination, facilitated by their effective denial of citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law.
The Rohingya have faced longstanding rights abuses, including restrictions on movement, limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced labor.
An estimated 120,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, are currently displaced in camps in Rakhine State as a result of violence in 2012 that amounted to crimes against humanity and "ethnic cleansing".