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Rohingya Refugees File PIL Against Facebook in Delhi High Court

The petition records how several Facebook users in India often used the terms such as – ‘illegal migrants’, ‘enemies of the country’ and ‘Bangladeshis’ to target the Rohingya who are predominantly Muslim.

The Chandeni-2 Rohingya refugee camp. Photo: Astha Savyasachi

New Delhi: In 2019, Equality Labs, an advocacy group that focuses on technology and human rights, with a team of 20 international researchers – that included Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and others – systematically recorded 1,000 Facebook posts that they found to be in violation of the platform’s community standards.

Their findings displayed that over 40% of all the posts that were removed after the group reported them were restored after a period of 90 days on average. An overwhelming majority of the posts that were restored were Islamophobic in nature.

The report summarises Equality Labs’ advocacy concerning hate speech on Facebook during 2018 and reveals disturbingly real threats that Facebook content presents to an estimated 300 million Indian caste, religious, gender, and queer minorities both in India and abroad.

Keeping their own experiences battling hate and the Equality Labs report in mind, Rohingya refugees have filed a Public Interest Petition (PIL) under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution, invoking Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, on behalf of the Rohingya community in India seeking protection of the right to life as members of their community in Delhi and throughout the country face violence, sometimes escalating to physical threats, as a result of the dissemination of violent hate remarks targeting them on the basis of their ethnicity and religion on Facebook.

The petitioners of the PIL are Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar due to ethnic violence and have been residing in New Delhi for the past 2 to 5 years and have been issued valid identity cards by the UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, which recognises the petitioners’ community as a persecuted community. The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine state of Myanmar.

The petition argues that the origins of these posts targeting them are in India, and the petitioners are affected by ‘Facebook’s’ failure to take action against hate speech on its platform. It is important to note that, 22, 110 Rohingyas are registered with UNHCR in India, and the total number of Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers in India are 78,731, which includes Rohingyas and from other nations.

The presence of Rohingya refugees in India is a highly politicised matter, and as such they are disproportionately targeted with harmful content on Facebook painting the group as a threat to India, often referring to the group as “terrorists”, “infiltrators” and exaggerating the numbers of Rohingya that have fled to India. A 2019 study into hate speech on Facebook in India, found that 6% of Islamophobic posts were specifically anti-Rohingya – when the Rohingya comprised only 0.02% of India’s Muslim population at that time.

The petition records how several Facebook users in India often used the terms such as – ‘illegal migrants’, ‘enemies of the country’ and ‘Bangladeshis’ to target the Rohingya who are predominantly Muslim. Certain users also advocated for the use of ‘bulldozers’ to wreck homes of these ‘enemies of the country’. Some Indian users on Facebook would also spread misinformation about Rohingyas running abduction and organ sale rackets.

Eva Buzo, a barrister providing support for the petitioning counsel, feels that there is a need to file this petition because a repetition can be seen in the type of harmful content that was proliferating on Facebook against the Rohingya in Myanmar in the lead up to the incidents in 2017. “This being an election ear and considering that Facebook operates in a way that really highlights political divisiveness, so filing the petition now is a form of preventative action to prevent the situation of harmful content being spread about the Rohingyas in India, so that it does not reach a point of actual violence against them,” Buzo told The Wire. Buzo was also a part of running a case in Ireland against Facebook for its role in the 2017 violence against the Rohingya.

Buzo also said that in countries like India, which haven’t signed the Refugee Convention, Rohingya don’t have the same rights as refugees in the countries where the convention is applicable, that leaves them extremely vulnerable. “They can be removed any minute, they can be targeted, this increases their vulnerability” she said.

Even in 2023, when the Nuh communal violence on July 31 shook the region with events of shops, homes and places of worship belonging to Muslims being vandalised, set ablaze and looted; the Rohingya as a community felt deeply vulnerable and easy targets of local ire and state law. They had then told The Wire that Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) officers came to their shanties and took many of them to Delhi for questioning in relation with the incidents.

Drawing on reports from Amnesty International also established that history shows Facebook is not willing to act on warnings so Buzo and the petitioning council felt need to seek an injunction from the court.

Advocate Kawalpreet Kaur, who is representing the Rohingya petitioners in court, said that the petition had been filed keeping in view the role Facebook has been playing in India promoting divisive content against minorities especially the Rohingya community. “These posts are originating in India and have tremendous potential for causing real time violence. The examples are quite apparent in the context of frequent statements made against the Rohingya community residing in India, targeting of their slum settlements and the violence which these posts on Facebook can lead to as we saw in Bangladesh,” Kaur said.

Another important reason that Kaur flags behind filing this petition is in context of the impending elections. Kaur shared that there is extreme alarm among the Rohingya community residing here as they are afraid of the immense number of vitriolic posts that would be posted and circulated on Facebook targeting them. “Our aim is to hold entities like Facebook responsible so that they do not selectively apply their community standards and not omit their responsibility when it comes to protection of minorities community. Facebook is actually playing a public role here and thus, we have decided to take it to court directly in Delhi,” Kaur said.

The matter is listed for January 23.

Note: An earlier version of this story published incorrect numbers on Rohingyas and refugees from Myanmar in India, which has now been duly corrected. 



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