By Blassy Boben and Zeba Siddiqui
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India deported seven Rohingya Muslim men to Myanmar on Thursday, raising fears of further repatriations among those sheltering in refugee camps in the country, and concern that those returned faced the risk of abuse at the hands of Myanmar authorities.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government, which regards them as illegal aliens and a potential security risk, has ordered that Rohingyas living in small settlements and slums around the country be identified and deported.
The seven men had been in a detention centre in eastern India since 2012 after being arrested for illegal entry, and were handed over to Myanmar, the government said, after India's top court rejected a plea to halt the deportation.
"Today’s decision by the Supreme Court marks a dark day for human rights in India. This decision negates India's proud tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing serious human rights violations," said Amnesty India.
Around 40,000 Rohingya live in India according to government estimates, most of them in camps, having arrived over the years after fleeing violence and persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which denies them citizenship.
Thursday's expulsion marks the first such move by India and comes at a time when some of the country's local media have been picking on the Rohingya as troublemakers, engaged in everything from petty crime to acts of terrorism.
Television pictures showed the men, their faces covered with handkerchiefs, coming out of a police station in the border town of Moreh before being turned over to Myanmar authorities.
Police officers from India and Myanmar exchanged a note that said the men were being repatriated to their "country of origin Myanmar" while the seven sat on a street in Moreh.
"We will drive them from this border point and drop them 100 kms from here, and after that it is their responsibility to go to the Rakhine state of Myanmar," Aung Myo, deputy director of immigration in Myanmar's Tamu border district told reporters during a televised press briefing.
The mother of one of the seven men said she was concerned about his fate.
"We are so worried," she said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals. She said she was worried the men would be jailed on their return. "We would be so grateful if the Myanmar government sent our sons directly to their homes."
India’s external affairs ministry said in a statement that the men had themselves sought to return to Myanmar in 2016, and the travel documents issued to them would allow them to return to their hometowns in Rakhine state.
Myanmar’s government spokesman, Zaw Htay, did not answer telephone calls on Thursday from Reuters seeking comment on the handover of the men. Last month, he said he would no longer speak to the media over the phone but only at a biweekly conference.
A U.N. report in August accused the Myanmar military of committing mass killings and rapes on the Rohingya with "genocidal intent" last year in an operation that forced more than 700,000 of them to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Myanmar has denied the charges, saying its military launched a counter-insurgency operation after attacks on security posts by Muslim militants in August last year.
International rights groups said the deportation violates international law, and the U.N.'s refugee agency said conditions in Myanmar's Rakhine state, from where the Rohingya have fled, are not safe for their return.
Mohammed Salimullah, a Rohingya in India who had challenged the government order in court, said India's decision to send the seven men to Myanmar was a shock.
"It would have been better if they had been kept in jail rather than being sent back to Myanmar."
"A SLICE OF HEAVEN"
At a small makeshift Rohingya refugee camp in New Delhi, home to about 40 families, there was alarm over Thursday's deportation. For many packed into a cluster of ramshackle huts, India was a safe zone.
"India is like a slice of heaven to me," said Mohammed Salim, 32, sitting by a plastic sheet that doubles up as the door to his house, as naked children crowded around an ice cream vendor outside. "I'm safe here. My children can study here. I can find work."
An Indian flag stood tall on a pole in the middle of the camp. In Myanmar, Salim said he wasn't safe. Most refugees said they did not want to return because they didn't believe they could live there peacefully. In India, many Rohingya have identity cards issued by the U.N.'s refugee agency which it says prevents them from arbitrary arrests, harassment and deportation.
At a camp in the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir too there was fear the authorities would be coming to take them away.
"Today they have expelled seven, tomorrow they can expel all of us," said Syed Alam, a refugee there. He said he was deeply troubled by the news. "India doesn't know what happens with Rohingya inside Myanmar. Can it not see what Myanmar has done to our people in the last year?"
India has been tight-lipped about Myanmar military's actions on the Rohingya, and struck a deal with Myanmar in December to help rebuild Rakhine State, from where the Rohingya have fled.
In a bid to counter China's influence in the region as part of its 'Look East' policy, India has deepened its security ties with Myanmar in recent months, and welcomed Myanmar's army chief Min Aung Hlaing this July to the country to discuss security in the border region.
(Additional reporting by Zarir Hussain in Guwahati, Poppy McPherson in Yangon, and Suchitra Mohanty in New Delhi; Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Richard Balmforth)