Earlier this week, Rabeda Begum, a sixty-year-old Muslim woman detained in one of Assam’s six detention centres for ‘declared foreigners’ died of cancer, making her the 27th person to die of illness in captivity within these facilities. According to official reports, at present approximately 802 people are being held in Assam’s Foreigners Detention Centres which are located inside jails across various districts of the state.
The detention centres house persons who were excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), thereby declared illegal immigrants by the Foreign Tribunals of Assam. The NRC, which has been described by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as a tool to render Indian Muslims stateless, has been criticized for disproportionately targeting India’s Muslim population as part of the ruling party’s wider anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic, international human rights organizations have raised serious concerns over the appalling living conditions inside Assam’s detention centres, including overcrowding, separation from families, lack of segregation between different categories of prisoners, inadequate medical facilities, and rising mental health issues.
Although the BJP government has refuted claims of using the NRC and the Foreigners’ Detention Centres as tools of intensifying its clampdown on Muslims in India, it has been constructing new facilities to detain more ‘declared foreigners’ in Assam.
In a recent statement, Amnesty International urged the Assam government to immediately release the detainees across the six detention centres. “As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across India, the Assam government must recognize that the detainees in overcrowded detention centres face a heightened risk of infection and must do everything to protect them starting with their immediate release”, it said. It also noted that despite the orders of the Indian Supreme Court to release detainees who had been held within these facilities for more than three years, many continue to remain there without the possibility of bail or parole.
Similarly, in a joint statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Refugee Agency, collectively urged states to immediately release all migrant detainees without delay considering the lethal consequences a COVID-19 outbreak would have in migrant detention centres.
In light of increasing concerns over the risk of an outbreak in migrant detention centres, the Supreme Court of India issued a notice to the central government in Assam this Monday on a plea-seeking the release of detainees who have spent more than two years in Assam’s Foreigners Detention Centres on grounds that the detention centres are overcrowded, thereby posing a high risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus.
However, despite growing concerns, recent reports reflect that the BJP government is attempting to increase the detention of Muslims in Assam within these facilities. Earlier this week, it was reported that former members of an Assam tribunal had been pressured by the central government to declare Muslims as non-citizens, subsequently firing tribunal members who failed do so. The former members also revealed that the state’s Home and Political Department, which is controlled by the ruling party, had expressed dissatisfaction for not rendering enough people as non-citizens.
Although the BJP government has refuted claims of using the NRC and the Foreigners’ Detention Centres as tools of intensifying its clampdown on Muslims in India, it has been constructing new facilities to detain more ‘declared foreigners’ in Assam. Since 2018, the BJP government has been constructing a large detention facility spread across 300,000 square feet of land in the Goalpara district of Assam which is nearing completion. The facility has the capacity to hold up to 3,000 people.
While it remains uncertain whether more ‘declared foreigners’ will be lodged into this new facility amidst a global pandemic, the current detainees await the response of the Assam government to the plea seeking their release on humanitarian grounds as the number of coronavirus cases continue to surge across South Asia.