The BJP government in Assam has renamed detention centres for ‘foreigners’ in the state as ‘transit camps’.
The principal secretary of Assam’s home and political department, Niraj Verma, on August 17 issued a notification stating that “the nomenclature of detention centre is changed to ‘Transit Camp’ for detention purpose” in partial modification of an earlier notification dated June 17, 2009.
In Assam there are six detention centres for holding ‘convicted foreigners’ and ‘declared foreigners’. These are located inside district jails in Goalpara, Dibrugarh, Silchar, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. These were notified temporarily by the state government in 2009.
A standalone detention centre — solely for the purpose of detaining ‘illegal foreigners’ — is being built in Goalpara district, around 150 kilometres from Guwahati.
In July, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had told the assembly that the six centres had 181 detainees – 120 ‘convicted foreigners’ and 61 ‘declared foreigners’.
A convicted foreigner is a foreign national who entered India ‘illegally’ and has been convicted by a judicial court; a ‘declared foreigner’ is one who was once considered an Indian citizen but then declared to be a foreigner by a Foreigners’ Tribunal — quasi-judicial bodies that adjudicate citizenship — in Assam.
The number of people in these detention centres went down considerably following a Supreme Court order on May 10, 2019, stating that declared foreigners could be released after three years in detention, subject to certain conditions. In April 2020, another order reduced the detention period to two years. About 750 people were released following these two orders.
Activists and civil society groups have frequently highlighted the “inhuman conditions” at these detention centres.
Following a batch of petitions filed by a team of lawyers and activists, the Guwahati High Court, in October 2020, asked the state to submit a report on steps taken to set up detention centres outside jail premises.
The HC said that “detention centres must be outside the state”, and the government must “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 show that 29 inmates have so far died due to various causes at these centres. Sarma told the assembly that 1,36,173 cases are pending in the Foreigners’ Tribunals, while 2,98,471 cases have been disposed of. He added that the state had so far repatriated 321 foreigners.