World's "most persecuted minority" recall the horrors of home

NEW DELHI -- The birth of Muhammad Haroon's son a few months ago brought some measure of joy to his shanty in New Delhi. But he can't help worry about his young boy's future; Atif-ul-Islam was born a refugee, into a fetid maze of a slum.


Haroon visits his son several times a day. It provides a welcome break from the small United Nations-funded shop he runs in the slum, which is home to about 50 families, all Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar.

Haroon is one of about 14,000 Rohingya refugees registered in India. They all fled alleged ethnic persecution in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

The Rohingya are believed to have migrated from what is now Bangladesh to Rakhine (then known as Arakan) in the 17th century. When Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948, the Rohingya were left stranded in Rakhine state; no longer Bangladeshi, but viewed by the newly-independent nation of Burma as outsiders.

"We are people of nowhere," Haroon told CBS News. "Myanmar doesn't recognise us as its citizens, other countries don't want us. Where should we go?"    

Almost 100 people were killed when tension between the Rohingya and the majority Buddhist population boiled over into ethnic rioting in 2012. An estimated 90,000 Rohingya were displaced amid the violence.

The riots may have been the tipping point of distrust between the Rohingya population and the state, which passed a law in 1982 effectively rendering them stateless, with no voting rights.

Every one of the refugees has his or own story to tell about the horrors of life back home.

"No choice"

Myanmar's own military, along with extremist Buddhist groups, have been accused of subjecting the Rohingya to sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrests and organized mass killings for many years.

The U.N.'s human rights agency, UNHCR, has described Rohingya Muslims as "the most persecuted minority in the world," and is sending a team to the country to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity.

Haroon made a dramatic escape from Myanmar in 2012, during the riots.

One afternoon, a friend told his father that the military would come to arrest him at night.

"We fled to our uncle's house nearby. But they found us," Haroon said.

He told CBS News that soldiers raped his uncle's wife and daughter and arrested his father in the midnight raid.

"When my uncle protested, he was beaten so badly that he died a couple days later."

A few days later, Haroon made the decision to take his own family and escape.

"Who would want to see his mother and daughter getting gang-raped? Nobody wishes to leave the comfort of his home, but we had no choice," he said.

A mother of three living in the refugee slum in New Delhi told CBS News that soldiers raped her sister in 2012.

"I could hear her screams from behind a cupboard, but I was helpless," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "If I would have come out to save her, I would have been raped, too."

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Nazeer Ahmad and his son are seen in the New Delhi, India, slum they share with about 49 other Rohingya refugee families. 

CBS

Nazeer Ahmad, a father of three children all born as refugees in India, remembers when his father "was arrested by the military on false allegations. We had to pay 3 million Myanmar Kyat (about $2,200) to get him released."

Ahmad fled to India with his family in 2008. He hasn't had any news about his relatives back home since then.

"Like hell"

Other refugees say that when they do get word from Rakhine, their friends and loved ones paint a grim picture of life in the region, which Myanmar's government doesn't let journalists visit.

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Rohingya refugee Ali Johar speaks to a child in the New Delhi, India slum that he calls home.

CBS

"We get phone calls from our relatives. They tell us their village is like hell," Ali Johar, who also escaped to India during the 2012 unrest, told CBS News. "They tell us they don't know when they will be killed, so pray for us."

"Relatives told us more than 20 villages have been burnt down back home," he said. "Women have been gang-raped and children killed."

Muhammad Shakir is also in contact with relatives and friends in Rakinhe. He says he continues to receive videos depicting ongoing violence there, but he deletes them quickly from his phone out of fear he could be under the scrutiny of security agencies.

His fear is not just of the powers that be in Myanmar, but also of the authorities in India, where he lives as a refugee.

They're safe from the violence of Rakhine, but for Shakir and the thousands of other Rohingya living in India, the future is uncertain.

The second part of our report on the Rohingya of New Delhi looks at the challenges they face now, and the daunting prospects for these "most persecuted" of refugees.