Amid calls for their deportation from India, Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar say they have settled in Jammu and Kashmir because of compulsions, and not out of choice, and that they will return to their country once the situation becomes favourable.
More than 13,700 foreigners, including Rohingya Muslims and Bangladesh nationals, are settled in Jammu and Samba districts, where their population has increased by over 6,000 between 2008 and 2016, according to data available with the state government.
"We are in India because of some compulsions, and not out of choice. We know this is not our land. We will leave on our own once those compulsions are addressed by the global community and we get justice," said 35-year-old Mohammad Yusuf, the head of a camp for Rohingya refugees.
The Rohingyas are a Bengali-dialect speaking Muslim minority in Myanmar. Following persecution in their country, many of them entered India illegally through Bangladesh and took shelter here.
"We were boarded into a train and asked to embark at the last station when the whole train gets empty. We were not aware that it is Jammu. We came to know at the railway station that some Rohingyas were living here and met them. This is how we reached here," he said, explaining why they landed in Jammu and Kashmir, several thousand miles from their homes.
The Rohingya refugees are aware of reports about New Delhi's plan to deport them and the 'Quit Jammu' campaign by certain social and political organisations that see their presence as a "conspiracy to alter the demographic character and a threat to the peace in the region".
Fear of deportation writ large on the faces of the refugees at their temporary cluster in Narwal on the Jammu-Pathankot highway.
Yusuf, originally a resident of the worst-hit Arakan in Myanmar, has been living in one of the 75 shanties, along with his wife and four minor children. The settlement is considered the largest on the outskirts of the city.
Such camps have also been set up at a number of other places including Bhagwati Nagar, Ban Talab, Channi and Bari Brahmana in Samba district.
"We are not involved in any criminal activity and are doing odd jobs to make our living. Most of us work as wage labourers, rag-pickers, scrap-dealers and a few are working at railway stations as sweepers," he said.
Rohingyas are facing a battle for survival, he says. "We are paying Rs 800 per month as rent to the land owner for each shanty and electricity connection," said Yusuf, surrounded by a group of men and children who nodded in agreement.
On August 18, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Centre over the plan to deport Rohingya refugees.
The NHRC notice came just days after United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over India's plan, and said the refugees should not be returned to the countries where they fear persecution.
The Human Rights Watch's South Asia also asked India to abide by its international legal obligations and not forcibly return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
According to the Human Rights Watch, about 16,500 Rohingya Muslims living in India are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while the government contends that around 40,000 illegal immigrants from Myanmar are unregistered.
Yusuf, who had arrived in Jammu in 2012 and got registration card from the UNHCR the next year, said there are around 8,000 Rohingyas in Jammu and none of them had ever been arrested for terror links.
The state government had said only 17 FIRs were lodged against 38 Rohingyas for various offences, including illegal border-crossing.
Yusuf, who is also the prayer leader and runs a madrasa within the settlement for the children of their community, said their religious belief is the same as of 'Deobandi' thought and "we believe in non-violence".
"Back home, we cooperated with local government and implemented its orders fully, whether of seeking permission for marriage and depositing Rs 5 lakh for various services. Despite that, we faced the wrath and forced to migrate to save our faith and lives," he said.
"We have people here who have seen worst and their stories can send shivers down the spine. They are targeting us because of our religion otherwise we had done nothing wrong," he said.
Yusuf was all praise for the people of Jammu.
"After a fire left us on the roads with all our belongings consumed by flames, the people came forward and helped generously to make us to restart our shattered lives," he said, referring to the fire in their camp earlier.
He, however, said they did not get any institutional help, except from an NGO, Save the Children.
The Jammu and Kashmir head of the NGO, Mohammad Shafi Bhat, said, "We are running a health and hygiene camp across the state and as part of our efforts to reach the last child, we concentrate on the health issues of the children of Rohingyas as well."
"We do not extend any monetary help to them but our effort is concentrated on improving the conditions for their children to check spread of any disease and improve their survival rate," he added.
Yasmeen Akhtar, a resident of Bousdang area of Myanmar and a select few who could speak in Urdu, said they have been facing lot of hardships in running their households.
Initially reluctant to talk like many other women in the camp, Yasmeen said they have to buy even water.
"We don't need anything but please allow us to stay back and spend a few peaceful years of our lives," she pleaded.
Akhtar has been living with her husband and a girl child in the camp for the past five years.
In May, the state government had announced the setting up of a high-level Group Of Ministers on the issue of illegal settlement of foreign immigrants in Jammu and Samba. The panel is yet to submit its report, drawing criticism even from the Bharatiya Janata Party which is a part of the coalition government.
Comprising two ministers each from the BJP and the PDP, the GoM headed by Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh has been given the mandate to go into the settlement of illegal migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh and examine all relevant aspects related to them.
Earlier this year, BJP legal cell member Hunar Gupta had moved the high court seeking identification and deportation of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis from Jammu. The matter is sub-judice.
"We want to go back to our homeland but the oppression is keeping us away. We know we will be killed if we go back," said Mohammad Zakariya in one of the camps for Rohingyas.
IMAGE: Children of Rohingya Muslims outside their jhuggis at a camp set up for them on the outskirts of Jammu. Photograph: PTI Photo