Foreign and Forgotten

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Despite adequate laws, hundreds of foreigners are stuck in overcrowded prisons across India

Afghan national Meer Vize, 65, has been a prisoner in India since 1999. His 12-year sentence in Jodhpur Central Prison on conviction of a drug-related offence was extended when he could not pay the accompanying fine. It should have all ended on 10 October 2012, but he cannot return to his home country until a deportation order is issued by the Indian Government. Now lodged in a detention centre at Alwar Prison, Vize suffers poor health and struggles to keep alive the hope that he will someday see his daughter, who has awaited his return since she was four.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), the Afghan Embassy and the National Human Rights Commission have written numerous letters to the ministries of Home and External Affairs requesting them to issue a deportation order, all to no avail.

A similar fate is shared by many foreigners languishing in prisons and detention centres across India. NT Jelo from the Kingdom of Lesotho says, “[My fellow prisoners and prison authorities] were against me because I am a foreigner. They generally do this to African nationals.” Jelo’s wife lives in Bangladesh with three young children and he used to visit often, travelling through West Bengal and earning money playing football for various clubs. On 21 July 2008, he was arrested by India’s immigration department for crossing the border without valid documents, under Section 14 of The Foreigners’ Act, 1946.

In prison, Jelo has composed many songs that convey the state of uncertainty in which he now lives. He has been waiting for a deportation order for over two years now. He wonders why representatives from the embassy of his own country have not provided him consular services.

Nothing has moved in the case of Khatun Begum (name changed) from Myanmar. “Being Muslim, it was really difficult to stay in Myanmar. So I decided to come to India, get refugee status and live a better life,” she says. While crossing the India-Bangladesh border with her seven children, she was caught by India’s Border Security Force and has been in prison for nearly three years. Because she crossed the Bangladesh border, she is being considered a Bangladeshi. Though she has finished her sentence, she cannot return to Myanmar as she fears a threat to her life; Bangladesh will never verify her nationality. Though India has a generous open door policy for refugees from neighbouring countries, people like Khatun Begum, who are unable to get refugee status from the UNHCR, continue to suffer silently in our prisons.

With refugees from Bangladesh, the picture is starker. Political relations between India and Bangladesh make it very difficult to repatriate nationals from one country imprisoned in the other. According to Ranvir Kumar, inspector general, prisons, correctional homes in West Bengal are overburdened with foreigners, mostly from Bangladesh.

“We do not have a choice but to keep them since the process of nationality verification from the Bangladesh government is delayed. Our request…is to expedite the process…as we would like to send them back as soon as we can,” he says. Speaking with several officials involved in the repatriation process, we learnt that the movement of Bangladeshis across borders is something of an open secret. Huge numbers travel to India in search of work every day. We interviewed 13 Bangladeshi boys who crossed the border either in search of jobs or to meet their relatives, but found themselves in juvenile homes under false charges of cattle smuggling. Though the Juvenile Justice Board ‘sets off’ most of its cases or awards minimal sentences, such boys end up spending an average of 18 months in juvenile homes awaiting repatriation orders and other administrative procedures. All 13 admitted to being physically abused by the Border Security Force. “I was slapped and even kicked,”said Arun (name changed), adding, “they held a gun to my head and put so much pressure that it still hurts.” They have been waiting to go home for seven months now.

One boy has been in a juvenile home for the past 19 months. Along with CHRI, various other civil society partners like BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust), MASUM (Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Manch) and PRAJAAK have been following up with sundry authorities for their immediate repatriation, but in vain. Following a PIL filed by CHRI in Calcutta High Court, it was found that, as of 1 December 2012, there are 320 Bangladeshis eligible for repatriation still imprisoned in West Bengal. One Myanmar national has served almost 12 years after the expiry of his sentence.

In less than a decade, the number of foreign nationals in India has increased by 109.7 per cent (from 2,789 in 2001 to 5,848 in 2011, as per NCRB records). The Repatriation of Prisoners Act, 2003, enacted to enable foreign prisoners convicted in India to be transferred to prisons in their own country for the remainder of their sentences, and vice versa, remains just another progressive policy with little implementation. So far under this Act, 12 Indian prisoners in Mauritius and one in the UK have been brought back to India, and six British Prisoners in India have been sent home to complete their sentences in their respective countries (Outcome Budget of Ministry of Home Affairs 2012-2013).

The Foreigners Act, 1946, confers wide and largely unfettered powers on the State to regulate the entry, exit, stay and ejection of people whom the State identifies as ‘foreigners’ from the territory of India. Consequently, the implementation of the Act by Indian authorities is harsh and out of sync with constitutional standards for due process and ground realities of border crossings.

The authors work with CHRI in New Delhi