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Fire Reduces Rohingya Camp To Ashes, Exposing India’s Refugee Policies

A massive fire destroyed a Rohingya settlement in Delhi, leaving refugees with nothing. As authorities investigate the cause, youth leader Ali Johar describes the fallout and researcher Jessica Field explains the combustible mix of politics and poverty for refugees.

Written by Ali Johar, Jessica Field Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A fire at the Kalindi Kunj settlement in Delhi on April 15 left around 220 Rohingya refugees with nothing.Ali Johar

After a late night of studying, I collapsed into bed on a recent Saturday night. My bedroom is behind my family’s shop in the Rohingya refugee settlement where I live, in Delhi, India. So I asked my parents to lock the door in order not to wake me when they opened the shop early the next the morning.

An hour after falling asleep, I was woken by the sound of shouting and crying from outside. Realizing something was very wrong, I yelled at my father to unlock the door to my room. When I got outside I saw all my neighbors in a state of panic. A fire had started near the latrines in our settlement of Kalindi Kunj shortly after 3 a.m.

Within a few hours, the entire settlement was reduced to ashes. As a result, 219 fellow Rohingya refugees lost everything: documentation from Myanmar, UNHCR refugee cards, cash savings, clothes, home-based work materials, school books and everything else that makes up a home. My family lost our shop and savings; my research papers, laptop and certificates and awards are all gone.

The April 15 fire was the fourth in Kalindi Kunj in six years, and the most destructive. Police are currently investigating someone who allegedly claimed credit on Twitter for causing the fire. Others believe it was started by an electrical fault. Either way, the fire was only possible because Rohingya refugees occupy such a precarious space in India’s legal, social and economic sphere. The politics of fear and the poverty of migration have created a literal tinderbox in the country.

The politics of fear and the poverty of migration have created a literal tinderbox in the country.

The fire comes at a time of intense political and physical insecurity for Rohingya in India. The government has declared our refugee community to be one of “illegal immigrants” and is attempting to deport us. We have experienced increased scrutiny by the authorities, attacks by online media outlets and physical threats – not least because the two Rohingya petitioners challenging the government’s deportation attempts in an ongoing case at the Supreme Court are from Kalindi Kunj.

Our settlement is on land donated by the Zakat Foundation, a local charity. Since 2012, the community has built around 50 jhuggis (slum-like shanties) at Kalindi Kunj. Rohingya families make ends meet through local daily-wage labor. Our homes were made of plywood, tarpaulin and plastic, enabling the fire to spread so quickly. The area is technically “unauthorized” – it does not have government permission for dwellings – leaving our community at the mercy of charity, and goodwill from the government.

This gray area of protection has created an accountability vacuum and dangerous living conditions. For six years Kalindi Kunj has had poor sanitation, no regular water supply, overcrowding and poor-quality construction. We have been asking the government, charities and the U.N. refugee agency for a decent and safe electricity supply since we arrived, but without success, so of course the use of unsafe wiring has spread.

The April 15 fire was the fourth in Kalindi Kunj in six years, and the most destructive. (Ali Johar)

Just six days before the fire, the Supreme Court asked the government to file a comprehensive report on the basic amenities provided at several Rohingya settlements in Delhi and neighboring Haryana, with Kalindi Kunj among them. This was a response to Rohingya from Kalindi Kunj reporting that terrible sanitary conditions were spreading sickness through the settlements, and requesting basic health and education facilities.

In theory, Rohingya refugees’ access to basic healthcare and education is protected under various laws and the Indian constitution. However, in practice, access is increasingly dependent on I.D. cards and documentation that the Rohingya cannot get.

The government’s position was recently summarized by a spokesperson for the ministry of home affairs: “The Indian government is not obliged to provide amenities to illegal immigrants; they have access to what is available to the rest of the citizens. We sympathize with their situation but they are guests, and shouldn’t demand things from the host.” The government wants to treat us a guests and charity cases; but we are refugees and have legal rights.

The government wants to treat us a guests and charity cases; but we are refugees and have legal rights.

We are grateful for the generous humanitarian response that mobilized following the fire. Delhi police and the local authorities, including hospitals, were quick to respond, and students and locals in particular have brought much-needed emergency items and solidarity in this time of crisis.

However, the area has become a bit of a circus, with journalists, aid groups and informal volunteers pouring onto the scene and jostling for access and visibility. Some people have been vocal in blaming authorities, and we are worried that politicizing the incident will cause a backlash.

There continue to be shortages of basic necessities, including food, drinking water and sanitation. The stress and uncertainty is very difficult to cope with. Until the camp is rebuilt and everyone can move out of emergency tents, it will be emotionally and practically difficult for people to return to work. This, we fear, will not only push the community further into poverty but may also feed into negative perceptions of the Rohingya community as being dependent on aid. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

So, what next? As the right of Rohingya refugees to stay in India and to access basic amenities is being debated in the Supreme Court, our community from Kalindi Kunj is faced with rebuilding from nothing once again. Zakat Foundation has pledged to rebuild the jhuggis within three weeks, but we fear the urgency will decrease once media attention has died down. And what will our new homes look like? Will we finally have basic amenities?

For a dignified life in India, Rohingya refugees need a safe and secure place to stay. This should not be dependent on charity; it is a human right. And, through accident or arson, we fear we might see a fifth fire if these basic refugee protections are not realized.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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