India’s Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a plea to stop the government from deporting to Myanmar some 150 Rohingya Muslims detained by police last month.
This effectively paves the way for them to be sent back to a country where hundreds have been killed following a military coup.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been trying to send back Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, many of whom were forced to leave Rakhine province by the army.
Two refugees petitioned the Supreme Court for the release of Rohingya men and women detained in the northern Jammu region last month and prevent the government from deporting them, reports the BBC.
But chief justice Sharad Arvind Bobde said the deportations could go ahead as long as officials followed due process. “Regarding the present state of affairs in Myanmar, we have to state that we cannot comment upon something happening in another country,” he ruled.
The decision has triggered panic among refugees in India, a Rohingya community leader in New Delhi said, declining to be named out of fear of reprisals.
“This is a terrifying order made by the highest court in India,” he said. “Given the horrifying situation in Myanmar, I had really hoped the judge would rule in our favour.”
The Modi government says the Rohingya are in the country illegally and constitute a security threat. According to community leaders, at least a dozen Rohingya have been deported since 2017.
Last week, officials tried deporting a 16-year-old Rohingya girl by driving her to the border, but that attempt failed as authorities in Myanmar were not reachable, officials said.
Many of the Rohingya in India carry identity cards issued by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) recognising them as refugees, but the country is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
India also rejects the UN position that deporting Rohingya to Myanmar violates the principle of refoulement – the forcible return of refugees to a country where they face danger.
Thursday’s order shows a “blatant disregard” for that principle, said Fazal Abdali, a lawyer involved in Rohingya deportation cases.
“It sends a message that India is no longer a refuge for persecuted minorities.”