Collective Against Detention (CAD) and Right to Nationality and Citizenship Network (RNCN), two rights watchdogs, unequivocally demand an end to arbitrarily declaring people as foreigners in Assam.
“We reject detention of declared foreigners as wholly illegitimate and demand their immediate release. We also hold that incarceration can never be a legitimate state response to migration and that no human being is illegal. We call upon the civil society to join us in this demand,” read the joint statement by CAD and RNCN.
On 27 January, India’s biggest detention center was opened in Matia, Goalpara district, Assam. 68 persons were shifted to the center, with more expected to be shifted soon. Sanctioned in 2018 by the Ministry of Home Affairs for Rs 46 crores, the 25 bigha center can house between 3000 to 3,500 persons. The camp at Matia will replace the six detention centers operating out of jails in Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat, and Tezpur. As of September 2022, there are 195 persons in detention, out of which 42 persons are those declared foreigners by Foreigners Tribunals in Assam.
It should be noted that in 2021 the Government of Assam renamed detention centers “Transit Camps.”
“Citizenship determination processes in Assam, such as the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Foreigners’ Tribunals, and the marking of persons as D(doubtful)-Voters, have been fundamentally arbitrary and discriminatory. The NRC—finalised in August 2019—excluded 19,06,657 persons who are yet to be given the right to file appeals against their exclusion,” the statement stated.
“Foreigners Tribunals in Assam, through an arbitrarily determined procedure and non-reasoned orders, regularly declare citizens as foreigners, often without giving them a chance to defend their citizenship. The burden of proof is on individuals suspected of being foreigners, and tribunal members routinely reject documents based on the most minor discrepancies to declare persons as foreigners,” it added.
The CAD and RNCN said: “Persons declared foreigners are detained in detention centers. While they are declared foreigners, the authorities fail to attribute any alternate nationality to them, as a result of which they cannot be deported. In fact, most persons declared foreigners are citizens who have failed to discharge an unreasonably high burden of proof and are effectively being deprived of their citizenship. Following orders of the Supreme Court in 2019, which was later modified in 2020, persons declared foreigners are now released after a period of two years but have to continue reporting to the local police stations in their jurisdiction of residence every week. Stringent bail conditions, including the need for two sureties, financially ruin their families and cause them a lot of anxiety as they feel isolated from their communities and are unable to find work.”
The two groups accused the state of rendering its citizens stateless, detaining them on the pretext of deportation, and then releasing them into a life of precarity and constant surveillance. “In this landscape, the Matia Detention Centre will worsen the conditions of people by removing them to one corner of Assam, far away from their families and communities. Moreover, the existence of a standalone detention centre will only prompt increased detention. Even now, detentions in Assam are slowly but inexorably increasing. It should be also noted that at the annual police conference held in January 2023, there were discussions on creating a larger number of detention centres across India.”
The groups said they reject the arbitrary detention of citizens who are declared “foreigners” by a prejudiced and whimsical system. “The above will lead to creating a classification among citizens, and persons with generational ties to Assam shall perpetually live in illegal confinement, across generations, without any recourse, all under the false guise of addressing ‘illegal migration’.”