On January 28, the Supreme Court directed the Union and Assam governments to furnish details on the foreigner detention centres in Assam through an affidavit. In its order, the Supreme Court sought: the total number of detention camps and inmates; how many inmates have proceedings pending and how many have been declared foreigners; a year-wise break-up of how many people have been declared foreigners in the last decade; how many declared foreigners were sought to be repatriated and the results.
The direction arose out of a petition filed by Harsh Mander in September, 2018, regarding the conditions in the detention centres. The relief sought through the petition was:
- For the Court to issue directions to ensure that detaining declared foreigners should be the last resort, for a limited period with clear prospects for release. To this effect, the detention should be non-punitive and that it should be resorted to only after an assessment of whether there were less restrictive or coercive measures that could have been applied to the individual concerned and which would be effective in the individual case.
- To issue directions declaring that those who have been determined to be foreigners and held in detention pending their repatriation, be treated as refugees.
- To issue directions to the State to expedite the deportation of those who have accepted that they are foreigners.
- To issue directions that those who have been declared foreigners, but whom their country of origin does not accept as nationals of that country, be declared as Stateless persons and be granted long term visa and protections that are afforded to refugees.
- To issue directions to the Union Government and the government of Assam to ensure that the Indian juvenile justice laws are applied to all children of those deemed to be foreigners, including the children who are detained as well as those who are free while their parents are detained.
On October 31, the Court opined that the subject matter of some prayers were being dealt with in another petition before the Chief Justice. Hence, the petition was placed before the Chief Justice. On November 30, an order was passed listing the matter for final disposal in January 2019.
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There are no easy answers to the foreigners’ issue in Assam. The controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) is one such exercise to remedy the issue. However, what cannot be denied is that basic humanitarian principles ought to be followed and enforced, irrespective of the citizenship status of a person. In a response to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha posed by a member from Assam, Badruddin Ajmal; Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, provided some details of the detention centres.
However, the figures that were provided represented the status as of August 3, 2016. There may be an increase or a decrease, however, adding up the total, it shows that 552 persons were detained in six detention camps across Assam.
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Mander’s petition stated that as of February 2018, there were 800 to 900 declared foreigners and 1,100 to 1,200 convicted foreigners lodged in the detention centres. Adding the more conservative estimates, it would amount to 1,900 detained persons. This represents an increase of 1,348 persons – more than double – over two years from 2016. What is worrisome is that the increase most probably does not represent stricter vigilance, but rather, the failure to repatriate those declared as foreigners. What the real figures are and whether they exist will be revealed at least to the Court on February 19, which is the next date for hearing the matter.