Far away from their troubled villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Rohingya Muslim refugees have found an unlikely new home in the Chennai suburb of Kelambakkam.
Here, 94 of them — young and old, men and women — live in a decrepit building close to the sea, safe but uprooted from their traditional way of life, learning to adjust to an alien culture.
This little-known corner on the Kelambakkam-Vandalur road, close to a corporate hospital, hosts 19 families including 52 children. The open space surrounding the building is crowded with ramshackle sheds of wood, plastic and cloth. Fifteen refugees stay in these sheds, with one corner serving as a community kitchen for the whole group.
“We definitely need alternative accommodation, but we request the authorities to allow us to remain in Kelambakkam,” says Mohammad Yosuf, a 28-year-old with two children.
Most Rohingya residents use basic Hindi for communication though the children and a few adults, have picked up a smattering of Tamil. Rohingya,their mother tongue, does not have a script.
For almost two years now, the refugees have lived in the 35-year-old building. “This place has become familiar to us. You have a market nearby. A primary health centre is just across the road and all our children go to the Kelambakkam Panchayat Primary School, hardly half-a-kilometre away,” Mr. Yosuf explains.
He is delighted that all the children got free educational kits from the school.
What the Rohingyas appreciate the most is the safety of their environment. “If my neighbours find any child belonging to the camp alone on the road, they bring the child back to the camp,” Mr Yousuf says.
The young man collects and recycles waste for a living. Other men in the camp work at odd jobs in the many eateries that line the road or with butchers. The women in the camp do not go out for work.
It used to be impossible for the refugees to get driving licences, but sources say the policy has recently been changed and authorities have discretion to grant licences.
Issued Aadhaar cards
Most camp residents have Aadhaar cards but they do not have bank accounts. As a result, some of the refugees who send money home to parents and siblings in Myanmar resort to informal channels. In one case, it is routed through the border State of Manipur.
Mr. Yosuf and his family were forced out of Mungdaw town in Rakhine province of Myanmar in 2012. He and his younger brother recall the shooting when they were praying at a mosque and armed men drove away the people of his community. Those who fled got to Bangladesh by boat, and then reached Kolkata by road. “An agent put us on a train to Chennai,” he says for a sum of one lakh Kyat, the Myanmarese currency (about ₹4,800).
The Chennai office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is involved in resettling the Rohingyas, and has intervened to ensure them shelter. For about three years before they registered with the UNHCR, the refugees were scattered in and around Chennai. In 2015, the agency intervened and approached the Tamil Nadu government for support. Since then, Kelambakkam and its unremarkable building became their camp.
There are 14,000 Rohingyas registered with the UNHCR in India. The UN agency told The Hindu that refugees and asylum-seekers are registered through long-stay visas, “which, while legalising their stay in India, also eases their access to higher education and private sector jobs.” The registration process protects the vulnerable from “harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, deportation, and facilitates employment and access to public services.” The visas, granted through the Kancheepuram Superintendent of Police and the UN agency’s facilitation, has helped them get Aadhaar numbers.
The UNHCR also supports the refugees “to the extent possible in collaboration with governmental, NGO and other partners. [The] UNHCR works closely with the government to ensure [that] refugees are able to live a life of dignity in asylum,” it said.
Mr. Yousuf and others turn nostalgic about Mungdaw. “So long as the Indian government wants us to be here, we will remain,” he says. The UNHCR tells them that there is no resettlement policy for Rohingyas. Would Mr. Yousuf like to go back? “Yes, but only after peace is established.”
(The featured picture at the top shows a Rohingya family in the outskirts of Chennai)