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The invisible suffering of Rohingya refugees

Rohingya refugee camp in Kalindikunj, New Delhi. document

Rohingya refugee camp in Kalindikunj, New Delhi. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

At a recent group psychosocial support meeting Rohingya Among female refugees in Delhi, the women burst out laughing when a therapist asked them if they felt anxious at night. “Many nights I woke up paralyzed. My arms and legs were numb, thinking our camp was on fire again.” Rozina smiled, acting like she was paralyzed. Another added, “Whenever there is a lot of When there was a loud noise, we would run out half-naked, without wearing burqas, because there would be no time to cover up for fear of another fire.” All 20 women in the room were laughing until they had tears in their eyes.

Psychotherapists say laughter can be a defense mechanism that protects trauma survivors from the depth of actual pain. According to December 2023 data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 22,000 Rohingya refugees live in India.

Most of them fled Myanmar between 2012 and 2017, when the Myanmar military began a “clearance operation” that killed Rohingya, raped women and destroyed villages in Rakhine state. “I fled Myanmar when I was 16. I remember everything along the way; murdered and beheaded bodies lying on the ground,” said Momina, a 24-year-old mother of two. She and others lived in shack-style huts in Derry and watched as fires destroyed their huts. The fires are sometimes accidental, but are sometimes started by members of nationalist extremist groups who claim responsibility on social media.

Areas highlighted in dark blue are those with the highest numbers of Rohingya refugees. Source: Refugees International and Freedom Project

Areas highlighted in dark blue are those with the highest numbers of Rohingya refugees. Source: Refugees International & Freedom Project

Momina was traumatized and retraumatized by multiple fires in refugee settlements in Delhi. “When there’s a fire, or even when there’s a lot of noise, I get so scared that I would pass out.”

She was diagnosed with severe depression and dissociative identity disorder, a mental health condition in which sufferers have two or more separate identities. Momina takes on at least three or four different identities, all of which are tied to her extremely traumatic past. Sometimes she transforms into a four-year-old child whose mother was killed by junta forces in Myanmar, and whom Momina then takes under her protection. Sometimes she plays an angry and violent Rohingya boy.

Momina is not the only person to report suffering from severe mental health illness. At the women’s center run by my organization, The Azadi Project, and supported by the Mariwala Health Initiative, many women report episodes of fainting after bouts of anxiety, dissociative attacks, and self-harm. The organization only targets women, but many men also suffer from serious mental health conditions.

While their trauma can be traced back to the genocide in Myanmar, it is made worse by the discriminatory conditions they face in India, where they are officially labeled “illegal immigrants” and denied full access to education, basic health care, legal services and Opportunities for formal livelihood opportunities. Anti-Muslim and anti-refugee xenophobia is growing, further causing them to live in shadow and absolute fear.

Although most Rohingya have UNHCR cards recognizing them as refugees, fears of arbitrary detention and deportation fuel their anxiety and fear. At least 500 Rohingya, including women and children, are being held in detention centers across India, according to interviews with Rohingya families and lawyers. In many cases, these individuals have been in prison for decades, illegally held without any criminal charges. Visit any Rohingya settlement in India and you will find that in every other family, either someone is currently detained or someone has been detained for a considerable period of time. Momina’s sister-in-law Amira was arbitrarily detained during the epidemic and was also detained for nearly three years. She was released after being paralyzed and seriously ill. Amira, like most other Rohingya refugees, has no place to process her trauma and heal. Amira was an introvert who rarely went out and only did housework. After many years in detention, she became even more withdrawn. Both Amira and Momina are now receiving mental health support, but this has only been reduced given the critical needs of this population.

Civil society organizations serving Rohingya refugees in India are in dire need of funding as most FCRA licenses that allowed them to accept foreign funding have been cancelled. Over the past few years, many programs supporting Rohingya refugees have either been shut down or cut to a minimum. Only a few UNHCR-supported organizations continue to work in this area, but they do so cautiously and not at full capacity.

While the plight of nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has received considerable attention, the international community also needs to pay attention to the escalating mental health issues among Rohingya refugees in India. A multi-pronged approach is urgently needed. First, we must address and mitigate the core causes of re-traumatization and provide the Rohingya with a more dignified life in India, with more institutions and official status. Secondly, we must make primary and tertiary health care facilities accessible to everyone with a UNHCR card; thirdly, we must support grassroots organizations to create safe spaces where Rohingya refugees can receive support and access without fear Begin their journey to recovery.

Priyali Sur, Founder and Executive Director, The Azadi Project



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