Updated: August 19, 2021 9:54:12 pm
Assam’s detention centres, where “foreigners” are held in often poor conditions, will now be known as “transit camps”, as per an official notification.
An August 17 notification by Niraj Verma, Principal Secretary of Assam’s Home and Political Department, said “the nomenclature of detention care is changed to ‘Transit Camp’ for detention purpose” in partial modification of an earlier notification dated 17.06.2009.
A state government official, requesting anonymity, told The Indian Express that the change in nomenclature was Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s idea to “humanise detention centres”.
“These people are not criminals as such. The term detention centre has negative connotations and with this name change, the approach will be more humane,” he said.
Assam — which has seen waves of migration from East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) over the decades — has detention centres inside district jails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Silchar for holding “foreigners”. These six centres were notified temporarily by the state government in 2009.
As per state government data, as of July, the six centres together hold 181 detainees. Out of the 181, 61 are “declared foreigners” and 120 are “convicted foreigners”. The latter means a foreign national who entered India “illegally” and is convicted by a judicial court while a “declared foreigner” is someone who was once considered an Indian citizen per se but then declared to be a foreigner by a Foreigners’ Tribunal — quasi-judicial bodies that adjudicate citizenship — in Assam.
A new detention centre — solely for the purpose of detaining “illegal foreigners” — is under construction in Matia of Goalpara district, around 150 km from Guwahati. As per the government official quoted above, this new “accommodation” should be ready in two months.
“It has about ten blocks, each with the capacity to house about 200. So altogether at least 2,000 people can be there. Our priority is to shift all the women and children of the detention centres first,” he said.
Abantee Dutta, co-founder and director of Studio Nilima, a Guwahati-based lawyers’ collective working on the issue of detention, told The Indian Express: “If we go by the definition of ‘transit camps’ as per international organisations, it means that such spaces cannot mirror prison-like conditions, nor can families be separated. But the way the architecture of the space is laid out in Matia, you will see that women’s wards are cordoned off. it really exposes the intent of the government, which is nothing but an eyewash.”
Human rights activists and civil society groups have frequently highlighted “inhuman conditions” in these detention centres, where inmates share space with those accused in or convicted of all kinds of crime, including murder.
The government official said: “The order clearly states that this is a ‘transit camp for detention purposes’ — it means they will be there till their nationality is accepted by the concerned country and they are repatriated as per law.”
Dutta said: “Unless there is a dialogue with Bangladesh, whatever name you call it by — a transit camp or detention centre — it still amounts to indefinite incarceration, and thus continues to be a disgrace to Assamese society.”
The number of people housed in the six detention centres considerably reduced following the Supreme Court’s May 10, 2019 order which said that declared foreigners could be released after three years in detention, subject to conditions. In April 2020, another order reduced the detention period to two years. About 750 people were released following these two orders.
Following a batch of petitions filed by a team of lawyers and activists and facilitated by Studio Nilima, the Gauhati High Court in October 2020 has asked the Assam government to submit an action report on steps taken to set up detention centres outside jail premises.
The High Court had said “detention centres must be outside the jail premises” and that the state government has to “ensure that the places where they are being kept must have basic facilities of electricity, water and hygiene etc. and that there is appropriate security at these places”.
Data shows that 29 inmates have so far died due to various causes in these detention centres. In the Assembly, Sarma had said that 1,36,173 cases are pending in Foreigners’ Tribunals, while 2,98,471 cases have been disposed of so far. He added that the state government has so far repatriated 321 foreigners in all. According to a reply by the Home Ministry in Lok Sabha by the MHA on December 10, 2019, only four “declared foreigners” have been deported to Bangladesh till date so far.
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