Consultation with Lawyers on Prevention and Response to Detention of Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Kolkata
Despite the fact that India is a host to diverse groups of refugees, India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The protection of refugees is confined to ad-hoc measures taken by the Government of India, leaving refugees with little protection for their basic human rights and virtually no legal provisions for their safety and welfare. In the absence of a central enactment on refugees, The Foreigners Act, 1946 governs the entry, stay and exit of foreigners in India. The outdated Foreigners Act poses a severe challenge to the rights of refugees in India as it does not distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution from illegal immigrants. Under such laws it is a criminal offence for a non-citizen to be in India without valid travel or residence documents. Consequently, refugees suffer deportation and detention.
In recent years there have been several instances in West Bengal where asylum seekers have been arrested and subjected to criminal proceedings under Foreigners Act. Asylum seekers of Burmese origin have been entering India through the Indo-Bangladesh border in the recent years. They are often mistaken as Bangladeshis by the authorities and are arrested at the border. Many including women and children are languishing in jail and juvenile homes in West Bengal with little or no access to legal remedies or access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for protection. Asylum seekers are thus being deprived of access to UNHCR to claim refugee status.
In this backdrop, a consultation was organised by Socio-Legal Information Centre (SLIC) with the assistance of UNHCR. The aim of the consultation was to facilitate comprehensive discussions to identify effective tools for judicial intervention to address the plight of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers imprisoned in West Bengal. The consultation was attended by lawyers practicing in the various district and sub-divisional courts in the State of West Bengal as well as lawyers practising in the High Court at Calcutta. Apart from this, the attendees included some of the social workers who are associated with SLIC and working in the various districts of West Bengal. Some lawyers associated with other civil society organisations such as Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), International Justice Mission (IJM) and Justice & Care were also present.