In mid-April, India’s Supreme Court directed the government to release “illegal foreigners” detained in Assam for more than two years in order to avoid overcrowding.
Assam has become a hotspot for immigration detention in India, as scholar Sujata Ramachandran reported in a 2019 Working Paper for the Global Detention Project: “The country’s detention and deportation policies have begun to receive widespread international attention in the wake of a recent crackdown on purported “illegal” residents in the Indian state of Assam, which is located in the far northeastern corner of the country. Sharing borders with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and a few other small Indian states, Assam is connected to the rest of the Indian mainland only by a narrow strip of land. Here, the process of identifying and removing ‘irregular Bangladeshis’ has gained considerable momentum as the state updates its ‘National Registry of Citizens,’ which threatens millions of Assam residents with imminent statelessness, in particular Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been targeted as part of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led campaign against Muslim-majority and Bengali-speaking Bangladeshis, including many who were born in India but lack documentation.” (For more on detention in Assam during the pandemic, see our 10 April update.)
Indian law does not distinguish between refugees and illegal immigrants and the central government grants asylum and provides assistance only for certain refugee populations. India is nonetheless host to a large population of refugees and the Government allows UNHCR recognised refugees to apply for visas.
The country has set up quarantine facilities for those returning from abroad. However, it has been reported that these facilities have poor hygiene levels and limited access to healthcare. People who arrived at New Delhi airport in March reported that after being screened at the airport, they were loaded into a bus packed with other passengers who had travelled from abroad and sent to an isolation facility in Dwarka. In that facility, more than 40 people were held with only three washrooms and three bedrooms. Similar reports arose from quarantine facilities in Kashmir where around 1,800 people were placed in similar facilities. One person who was quarantined in Kashmir stated that authorities had not provided them with liquid soaps and sanitisers and that they were forced to use a dirty washroom.
People detained in prisons, correctional homes, or immigration detention centres are at high risk owing to the closed setting and proximity in common living space. In India, this risk was acknowledged by the Supreme Court on 16 March: “The bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for prisoners to maintain social distancing. … like any other viral diseases susceptibility of Covid-19 is greater in over-crowded places, mass gatherings, etc. Studies indicate that contagious viruses like Covid-19 proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. Studies also suggest that prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses. The rate of ingress and egress in prisons is very high, especially since persons (accused, convicts, detenues etc.) are brought to the prison on a daily basis. Apart from them, several correctional officers and other prison staff enter the prison regularly, and so do visitors (kith and kin of prisoners) and lawyers. Therefore there is a high risk of transmission of Covid-19 virus to the prison inmates… we are of the opinion that there is an imminent need to take steps on an urgent basis to prevent contagion of Covid-19 virus in our prisons.”
On 11 May 2020, the National Commission for women announced that more than 1,700 women on remand had been released since 25 March. On the next day, the High Power Committee appointed for the emergency release on parole or bail of prison inmates, decided to release around 17,000 out of 35,239 prisoners from prisons in the state of Maharashtra. In the whole of India, 61,100 prisoners have been released. However, these releases have not necessarily included detained foreign nationals – rising numbers of whom are being held in Indian prisons. In the state of Odisha for example, where almost one thousand prison inmates have been released, the group of persons denied release include those convicted for rape and sexual offences, and foreign nationals. Similar guidelines are also in place in Jammu and Kashmir.
As of 19 May 2020, 388 positive cases of Covid-19 have been identified among prisoners and three prisoners have died from the disease.
- S. Ramachandran, “The Contours of Crimmigration Control in India,” Global Detention Project Working Paper No. 25, 2019, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/GDP-Working-Paper-25-The-Contours-of-Crimmigration-Control-in-India.pdf
- India Today, “Coronavirus: SC Orders Release of ‘Illegal Foreigners’ in Assam Detained for 2 Years to Avoid Overcrowding,” 13 April 2020,
- T. Thacker, “Covid-19 Spread: Poor Conditions of Quarantine Facilities Come Into Focus in India,” Economic Times, 21 March 2020, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/poor-conditions-of-quarantine-facilities-come-into-focus/articleshow/74738682.cms
- K. Yousuf, “Covid-19: Kashmiris Complain of Crowded, Unhygienic Quarantine Facilities,” News Click, 1 April 2020, https://www.newsclick.in/COVID-19-Kashmiris-Complain-Crowded-Unhygienic-Quarantine-Facilities
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, “Guide for Prison Officers: Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/download/1528281092Guide%20for%20Prison%20Officers%20Refugees%20&%20Asylum%20Seekers.pdf
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, “Covid-19 and Prisons: Ensuring an Effective Response,” https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/download/1585130808CHRI%20Suggestions%20on%20Covid%2019%20and%20Prisons.pdf
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, “State/UT Wise Prisons Response to Covid-19 Pandemic in India,” accessed on 20 May 2020, https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/content/stateut-wise-prisons-response-to-covid-19-pandemic-in-india
- In mid-April, India’s Supreme Court directed the government to release “illegal foreigners” detained in Assam for more than two years in order to avoid overcrowding (India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/coronavirus-sc-orders-release-of-illegal-foreigners-in-assam-detained-for-2-years-to-avoid-overcrowding-1666633-2020-04-13)