Police in India’s northeastern state of Tripura have arrested 31 Muslim Rohingya who were fleeing a recent crackdown by India’s Hindu nationalist government.
The group, which included 16 children and six women, was arrested on Tuesday after it was denied entry into Bangladesh and border officials from the two nations failed to agree on what to do with them.
India regards the Muslim-majority Rohingya as illegal aliens and a security risk and has ordered that tens of thousands of them who live in scattered settlements and slums around the country be identified and repatriated to Myanmar.
As many as 1,300 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh from India in recent weeks as fears of deportation to Buddhist-majority Myanmar sparked an exodus.
The latest group crossed the barbed-wire fences along the Indian part of the border at Rayermura in West Tripura district, but Bangladesh border guards stopped them from entering their territory.
Stranded at ‘no-man’s land’
The group had spent the last four days stranded in the “no-man’s land” between India and Bangladesh, which hosts the world’s largest refugee camp of over a million Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Officials said the arrested Rohingya were brought before a court in Tripura’s capital Agartala, which put them in 14-day judicial custody.
“They were trying to enter into Indian territory from the Bangladesh side and BSF resisted them from entering,” said Brijesh Kumar, director inspector general of India’s Border Security Force (BSF).
Police official Ajay Kumar Das said a case was registered against them under India’s Passport Act for trying to illegally infiltrate Indian territory.
The refugees alleged that the Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) had beaten them and confiscated their cards issued by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“The BGB beat me, my children, my mother and my husband as well. We were hungry but they did not even provide us any food or water. My child has been unwell but there was no medication,” 19-year-old Shahjida Begum said.
Police said the arrested Rohingya had been living in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, for the past six years.
They added that no UNHCR cards, usually issued to refugees, was recovered from them.
The Rohingya refugees disagreed. “We had all the documents. We came here looking for work. The BGB snatched our cards,” Muhammad Shahjahan, 27, told Al Jazeera.
Shahjahan said a person from Bangladesh had assured them that he would help them cross the Indian border for a sum of around $11 per family.
“He came at night to help us cross, but the BGB caught us and that fellow fled the spot,” said Shahjahan.
Meanwhile, on Monday night, another group of 30 Rohingya refugees, which included 12 children and nine women, was arrested in neighbouring Assam state while they were travelling on a bus to Guwahati
That group had also come looking for work after they lost their jobs in Kashmir, police said.
Thousands fled persecution
According to India’s home ministry, nearly 40,000 Rohingya are living in India. The UNHCR recently said 18,000 of them were registered as refugees and asylum seekers.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar, chiefly to Bangladesh, since August 2017 to escape an army-led crackdown in Rakhine state, where they are denied citizenship and face widespread discrimination.
UN investigators have said senior Myanmar military officials should be prosecuted for genocide, but the country insists it was defending itself against armed rebels.
India has faced sharp criticism for turning members of the persecuted minority over to Myanmar in recent weeks, including from the UN and rights groups.
India, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, arrested 230 Rohingya in 2018 – the most in years as Hindu nationalists called for mass deportations.
Despite assurances from Myanmar, human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say conditions are not yet safe for Rohingya refugees to go back.