Indian police bussed seven Rohingya Muslims to the border on Wednesday to be deported to neighbouring Myanmar for illegal entry, officials and activists said, the first such move against the community.
An estimated 40,000 Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim minority, live in India after having fled violence and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s Rakhine state over the years. The seven men being sent back had been held in prison since 2012 for illegal entry.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has described illegal Rohingya immigrants as posing a national security threat, and ordered state governments last year to identify and deport them.
Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, additional director general of police in the northeastern state of Assam, said that the seven men would be handed over to Myanmar authorities on Thursday.
“This is a routine procedure, we deport all illegal foreigners,” Mahanta said.
But a U.N. human rights official said the forcible return of the Rohingya was a violation of international law.
“The Indian government has an international legal obligation to fully acknowledge the institutionalised discrimination, persecution, hate and gross human rights violations these people have faced in their country of origin and provide them the necessary protection,” the UN’s Special Rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, said in a statement.
An official at the UN refugee agency said conditions in Rakhine were not conducive for the safe, dignified and sustainable return of the Rohingya.
More than 700,000 Rohingya, according to U.N. agencies, have escaped Rakhine to neighbouring Bangladesh over the past year, bringing accounts of mass killings, arson, and rapes by the Myanmar army.
U.N. officials described the Myanmar military’s action as ethnic cleansing. Myanmar has denied the charges, saying its military launched a counter-insurgency operation after attacks on security forces by Rohingya militants in August last year.
Many continue to flee, saying conditions in Rakhine are no better than last year.
India’s move comes as its top court hears a case filed against the government order calling for the deportation of the Rohingya.
Cheryl D’souza, a lawyer for the petitioners, said it was important that such deportations “aren’t allowed to happen under the cover of darkness”.
“Many more Rohingya may share this fate.”
Nearly 200 Rohingya are known to be detained in India on charges of illegal entry, according to the UN.
Myanmar’s government spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not answer telephone calls on Wednesday from Reuters seeking comment on the handover of the men. Last month, he said he would no longer speak to the media over the phone but only at a biweekly conference.
The Supreme Court in New Delhi has agreed to hear the matter of the seven Rohingya on Thursday, D’souza said.