It has been more than a year since the mother and sister of 12-year-old Inayat Rehman were detained by the Indian police along with 150 Rohingya refugees in the southern city of Jammu in India-administered Kashmir.
Their arrest was part of a government crackdown against Rohingya following a persistent campaign against the mainly Muslim ethnic group, with local politicians and media reports calling them “illegal” residents, “parasites” and a national “security threat”.
The United Nations says nearly 40,000 Rohingya fled to India from Myanmar, most of them in 2017 when a military crackdown in the Buddhist-majority country began against them. The UN said the crackdown was carried out with “genocidal intent”.
The refugees, many of them believed to be undocumented, took shelter in camps and slums in several Indian cities, including capital New Delhi. Approximately 5,000 of them settled in Jammu, including Rehman’s family.
But Rehman is now alone after his mother and sister were detained and sent to a local jail in order to be deported back to Myanmar.
“I miss my mother,” Rehman told Al Jazeera as he sat outside the shanty of a Rohingya neighbour who is now taking care of him.
“Our house was also demolished after my mother and sister were taken away,” he said, referring to the removal of their shanty by the owner of the land as there was no one left behind to pay the $13 rent.
Fears of separation
Many other Rohingya have been separated from their family members following the crackdown and deportation against the community.
In March this year, Haseena Begum, 37, was separated from her three children and husband and was sent back to Myanmar after yearlong detention at Jammu’s Hira Nagar prison, where Rehman’s family members are also detained.
Another Rohingya man, Jafar Alam, was also detained and deported back to Myanmar recently, activists told Al Jazeera, adding that he was separated from his six children and wife.
According to the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), an independent rights group based in New Delhi, at least 354 Rohingya are currently detained in India on charges of “illegal entry”. The highest number of such detentions are in Jammu.
Rohingya rights groups tell Al Jazeera the Indian government has deported 17 refugees since 2017 and is planning to deport more in violation of the principle of non-refoulment which states that refugees should not be deported to places where they may face persecution.
Rehman’s neighbour told Al Jazeera his mother had pleaded with the police to detain him as well so that the family could stay together in detention. “But they refused,” she said.
In fact, the fear of separation from families is greater among the refugees than the fear of being deported back to Myanmar. The fear has forced many to leave Jammu, with many families unsure where their destination would land them next.
In the last three weeks, dozens of Rohingya families have fled Jammu on their way to neighbouring Bangladesh, home to nearly a million Rohingya in the world’s largest refugee camp.
“Most of us are planning to leave,” Muhammad Arif told Al Jazeera in Jammu, adding that the Rohingya families are spending “sleepless nights”, fearing the police could detain them anytime.
“After the police arrive, the shanties are emptied. People do not want to be separated from their children as many have already. Separation is the most inhumane part of this crackdown,” said Arif, a father of three small children.
Arif arrived in Jammu in 2012 with his father, brother and cousins. On April 1 this year, his father, brother and two of his cousins were detained and taken to a detention centre at Hira Nagar prison.
“My father is above 70 and ailing. When I met him in jail, he told me to leave with my family immediately as they could detain us anytime. This pain of separating families from each other is worse than death,” Arif said.
“We know we are not safe anywhere. When we leave we could be detained anywhere. For us, there is no justice, no voice in this cruel world, no condemnation, no leader,” he said.
In India, Rohingya are facing a rise in strict surveillance, arbitrary detentions, questioning and summons from security agencies. They say they are being targeted for their religious identity since they are predominately Muslims.
The crackdown against Rohingya blends with the larger xenophobia and hate campaign against India’s Muslims by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu supremacist groups affiliated to it.
India has defended the crackdown and deportations by arguing that it is not a signatory to a 1951 UN convention which details the rights of the refugees and the legal obligations of countries to protect them.
Last year, India’s top court refused to intervene after activists moved a petition against the government’s decision to deport the Rohingya.
The BJP-led government defends the move, saying the refugees are “involved in criminal activities” without offering any proof.
“They came here from far away land and we cannot allow them to settle here. This is a security threat for us,” Ashok Kaul, a BJP politician in Jammu, told Al Jazeera.
“We will pack them in vehicles and send them back. The process to deport them will continue. Our party’s stand is clear on it.”
‘Can’t think of losing him’
The persistent threat of deportation has left the displaced ethnic minority with an uncertain future.
Muhammad Javed, 15, came to Jammu when he was three after his parents fled the persecution in Myanmar. His father, a sanitation worker, died in 2018 following a long illness. After passing his Class X board exams despite the hardships, Javed says he does not dream to become a doctor or an engineer like other people of his age.
His only dream is to live with his mother Sajida Begum. And to do that, he must leave Jammu.
“I do not fear death. I only fear I might be separated from my mother if any of us is detained,” Javed told Al Jazeera at his makeshift house in Jammu’s Narwal area.
Begum says she is equally worried. “He is my whole family in this world. I can’t think of losing him,” she told Al Jazeera. “I am not able to do anything due to this worry. I am not able to work as I stay around him to protect him.”
Many Rohingya Al Jazeera spoke to in Jammu said they are not being given the refugee status despite being registered with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. As a result, they are treated as “illegal immigrants” and face further displacement.
Dozens of temporary houses across Jammu where Rohingya had been living for years now lie flattened after the refugees fled the crackdown by Indian agencies. Many of them had to sell all their belongings.
Muhammad Islah, 70, says six of his family members left the city to flee the crackdown but he does not know their whereabouts.
“We don’t have any contact with them. We don’t know where they are and whether they have reached any safety,” he said.
Ali Johar, co-director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative told Al Jazeera that by making deportation arrangements with Myanmar where a military coup took place last year, India is violating international laws.
“It is sad that India is doing this with Rohingya when the world is seeking justice for them. We are afraid that these deportations are separating families,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Additionally, they are legitimising the Myanmar military coup group who are an occupying force and do not represent the people of Myanmar.”
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the Rohingya are among the most oppressed communities in the world.
“Instead of protecting the Rohingya who sought shelter in India and joining international efforts in ensuring their safe and voluntary return to their homes, the Indian authorities are targeting them and causing them further suffering,” Ganguly told Al Jazeera.