Immigrant Detention Centres in India – need for transparency: Paresh Hate

Guest post by PARESH HATE

From what knowledge we have so far, it seems clear that the issue of citizenship and migration in South Asia is not any less complicated or politically charged than in Global North. Assam Accord and National Registry of Citizenship were already polarizing individuals across the political spectrum.  The demonisation of Bangladeshi immigrants continues throughout the country. But the entering of BJP in Assam politics has complicated the matter even further. Beyond the stories of deportation and violence at the border between India and Bangladesh, now we are also witnessing a rise of detention centres all over India which has put the lives of many migrants effectively into a state of limbo where they are designated for deportation but do not know when they will meet this fate.

A few days ago, there was news of a new detention centre for undocumented migrants being set up in Karnataka. News reports suggested that this would be the second such in an Indian state after Assam,to have an exclusive arrangement to hold those who have been declared foreigners by courts awaiting deportation. The details of the location are not fully clear yet.

So far, the case of Assam detention centres is the only one about which there is enough public knowledge. This is owing to the fact that there was huge media coverage because of the entire process of National Registry of Citizenship in the state. Simultaneously, some data is available from two other sources that one can easily find:

1) The details brought out in the recent writ petition filed by Harsh Mander in the Supreme Court regarding the conditions in Assam detention sites (Writ Petition Civil no. 1045/2018) which he visited in his capacity as Special Monitor of the National Human Rights Commission for Minorities and

2) A report published in 2018 by Amnesty International India titled “Between Fear and Hatred: Surviving Migration Detention in Assam.” Both of these sources, alongside numerous news pieces, document the abysmal state of detention centres in Assam and the inhumane conditions that detenues have to live through, where there is hardly any permission for work or mobility among other elements.

Detention centres are managed by different authorities at different locations. For example, the direct control of detention sites is under bodies such as Foreign Tribunals, Border Security Force, Ministry of Home Affairs, etc. Detention centres are not necessarily seen as confinements for the purpose of penalty but understood more as the temporary junctions between identifying “illegal foreigners” and the process of deportation. Yet, as the case of Assam shows, due to many reasons – bureaucratic inefficiency, or the principle of non-refoulement (the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution),  indefinite detention has become the norm at many of these sites, turning into a kind of punishment itself. We do not know whether this applies to detention centres across the country or only those in Assam. But this is precisely the part of the problem that needs to be addressed.

This is because, apart from Assam, the data on these sites is extremely difficult to find in the public domain. Even in the media, coverage of these sites is low. Similarly, there is hardly any academic scholarship on detention centres in India. If one goes through the academic literature in North America or Europe, one would find numerous ethnographic accounts of detention for undocumented immigrants that are rich in detail. In India, the study of carceral conditions has been mostly restricted to the study of prisons.

If there is one lesson to be learnt from the scholarship of North America or Europe and the case of Assam, it is this: the functioning and structure of detention centres often differs significantly from the operating structure of prisons. As academicians, it is possible to transfer insights of conditions of confinement from one place to another for theoretical reasons but not really analyze the situation at specific sites. Moreover, as those concerned about human rights, we ought to be able to keep a check on what governments do to individuals in the name of security, especially in an age where securitization has largely become a justification for state violence.

Searching “immigrant detention centres in India” on a search engine leads one to a link on the website of the Global Detention Project, which is a migrant justice organisation based in Geneva that promotes human rights of those detained for reasons of non-citizenship. Among the list of detention centres in India, they provide a list of ten sites, except those in Assam. Out of these, seven are in Delhi, one is in West Bengal, one is in Bihar, and one is in Gujarat. The Delhi ones are at Alipur Road, Lampur, Daya Basti, Old Delhi, Daryaganj, Hauz Khas, and Shahjadabad.

The problem with this data is that it is quite limited in its details. For example, the only characteristics of the site it mentions includes information on demographics (in terms of binary gender), purpose (which is holding persons for undocumented immigration), and the year since they are in operation (mostly mid-2000s or later). Since finding out this data, I have tried to contact the organisation. They have suggested that more data can be available with Human Rights Law Network and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees India. Currently, I am in the process of contacting them.

Apart from these, two sites from Delhi are discussed in the media. A news piece in Business Standard from 2014 talks of the efficiency of Delhi’s detention centre model and the need to replicate it across the country. The two detention sites it lists are Nirmal Chaya (a site in West Delhi for women with a capacity of holding 15 persons) and Lampur Complex (a site in North Delhi for men with a capacity of holding 400 men). The latter is one of those that Global Detention Project also lists.

The overall issue is the inaccessibility of information regarding any of these sites on the website of Ministry of Home Affairs. Another discrepancy arises because at least one of the sites mentioned by Global Detention Project is called a “Seva Kutir” (at Old Delhi). It is possible that the articulation and projection of the detention centre by the government is not true to the actual lived experience of the detenues there. The Assam situation is a good case in point.

The recent emergence of concentration camps in the USA for undocumented migrants also points to a direction that should worry us all. There is news of putting too many people in cramped spaces, lack of basic commodities such as toothbrush and soaps, and even sexual abuse of children at these sites. Such facts are not unheard of in case of prisons. Similar could be the case of detention centres also.

Most people who I have tried to contact for more details also raised similar concerns regarding the lack of information. The two ways to go forward seems to be to either wait for some minister to raise the issue in the parliament or to file an RTI. Currently, I am trying to work out through both of these ways. In any case, we need to demand complete transparency in the process. Regardless of what one thinks of the movement that these persons from whichever region make, the lack of information on detention centres in India is alarming. Various detention sites across the world have been full of human rights violations and gross mistreatments of immigrants. If Amit Shah’s statements are to be believed, the current government intends to set up National Registry of Citizenship across the India to remove “illegal immigrants” and “infiltrators” from the country.

There is a desperate need to organize a mass movement against NRC and fight for migrant justice, proclaiming “no one is illegal”. Amidst the entanglements of language and religion, we are seeing a growth of instances with multiple losses of “the right to have a right” as the politics of citizenship become more and more contested.

Today, when our country is deep in the toils of xenophobic nationalism, we have no other option but to expand the horizons of our ethical concerns to those we usually deem beyond “our” community.

Paresh Hate is a PhD scholar at JNU

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