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Saturday, April 04, 2020

Coronavirus: Bangladeshi travellers stranded at Tripura’s Akhaura ICP over confusion on visa restrictions

Officials at the Akhaura ICP confused the timing of restrictions and halted all fresh arrivals from Bangladesh into the Indian territory or fresh departure of Indians from 6 am this morning.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala | Updated: March 13, 2020 9:13:09 pm
Hundreds of travellers with urgent errands were left stranded right across the zero line. (Source: Debraj Deb)

Hundreds of Bangladeshi travellers were stranded at Tripura’s Akhaura Integrated Check Post (ICP) Friday as authorities seemed confused about the timing of restrictions imposed by the Government of India for the visit of foreign nationals to prevent the spread of coronavirus. An Integrated Check Post (ICP) is a trade centre for facilitation of bilateral trade between India-Bangladesh as well as for movement of passengers across the border.

According to the latest revised travel advisory issued by the Government of India, all existing visas, except diplomatic, visas issued for UN or other international organisations, employment visa, project visa would stand suspended till April 15. Visa-free travel facility granted to OCI card-holders would also be kept in abeyance for the time being. The restrictions were scheduled to come into effect from 12:00 GMT on Friday.

READ | MHA clears Rs 325 crore for new Integrated Check Post with Bangladesh in Tripura

Tripura shares an 856-km-long international border with Bangladesh, the longest for any Indian state after West Bengal (2,216.7 km). It has eight Land Custom Stations (LCS) and one ICP with the neighbouring country. A new ICP is scheduled to be set up with Bangladesh soon at Sabroom in southern Tripura.
Travellers being checked at the Indo-Bangla border in Tripura. (Source: Debraj Deb)

Officials at the Akhaura ICP confused the timing of restrictions and halted all fresh arrivals from Bangladesh into the Indian territory or fresh departure of Indians from 6 am this morning. Hundreds of travellers with urgent errands were left stranded right across the zero line. Bangladeshi immigration officials had already stamped and passed their passports before they were stopped by Border Security Force (BSF).

Many travellers had medical emergencies. While some were coming to India for cancer treatment at the Regional Cancer Centre in Agartala, others were en route to the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore with cardiac issues. Few students were returning from home in Bangladesh to appear for their exams in the technical educational institutions in India.

Mujalim Hussein from Noakhali district was en route to New Delhi via Tripura. He came at 7 am with a medical visa and was stopped. “Bangladeshi immigration officers don’t have any problem to allow us. The problem seems to be on the Indian side. I wish we could speak to some immigration officials here but BSF personnel doesn’t allow us to meet them either,” Mujalim said.

Indian Officials at the border checkpoint with Bangladesh screening travellers. (Source: Debraj Deb)

Another Bangladeshi national Bhaskar Choudhury had been waiting since 11:30 am with his wife who has been on chemotherapy for her advanced-stage cancer. “My wife is severely ill. She is a cancer patient and needs to get her fourth chemotherapy cycle. She needs urgent medical attention. But they (BSF) aren’t allowing me to go in,” he said. It was already 2:30 pm at the time.

Abdul Awal of Bangladesh’s Sirajganj district, who came with a medical visa, was going to Delhi for his cardiac treatment when he was forced to return from the border.

Many were either sent back or left stranded across the zero line till 3:30 pm when authorities finally decided that the cut off time for restrictions would be 5:30 pm since 1200 GMT would translate to 5:30 as per the Indian Standard Time (IST).

West Tripura District Surveillance Officer Dr. Sangeeta Chakraborty and her team of medicos joined the paramedical helpdesk at Akhaura ICP in the afternoon and allowed few people to enter who have proven history of medical emergencies.

(Source: Debraj Deb)

“We received a notification yesterday that Visas of Bangladeshi nationals would be restricted for checking spread of coronavirus. They wouldn’t be allowed to enter after 5:30 this evening. We are allowing some of them till that time only in cases of severe medical conditions like cancer patients, that too only after they pass the thermal scanner test at our medical helpdesk,” the health surveillance officer informed.

Biswajit Ghosh, the second-in-command for immigration at Akhaura ICP, echoed similar sentiments. He claimed nobody was halted at Akhaura ICP except those showing disease symptoms and informed it continued till 5:30 pm today. Blanket restrictions would be imposed on foreign nationals trying to visit India from Saturday barring diplomatic, visas issued for UN or other international organizations, employment visa and project visa.

While the stranded Bangladeshi nationals complained they were not allowed to enter without giving them the chance to take the thermal scanner test, Dr. Chakraborty explained that 40-45 persons from the neighbouring country were sent back after they showed symptoms like fever, running nose, cough and difficulty in breathing – all suspected symptoms of possible coronavirus affliction.

Meanwhile, all those who were allowed to enter India today through the ICP would be kept under quarantine for 14 days if they wished to stay in Tripura. In case of those moving on to other states of the country or abroad, address and communication details would be collated in a list of foreigners maintained centrally in the state.

(Source: Debraj Deb)

Despite the relaxed check-in, many were not allowed entry into the country till evening. Sankha Ghosh from Chittagong and many others like him said they clarified the visa restriction timing from Indian High Commission in Bangladesh before arriving at the ICP but those words didn’t match with experience at the border.

“Restrictions would be in place from 5:30 pm Indian Standard Time and 6 pm Bangladesh Time. I know tourist visa would not be allowed tomorrow. But it is allowed today as per the government instructions. We got this clarified from the Indian High Commission there before coming. I came all the way from Chittagong for nothing,” Ghosh told this correspondent.

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