Workshop on Prevention and Response to Detention of Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Stateless Persons
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 refugee, 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 The outdated Foreigners Act poses a severe challenge to the rights of refugees in India as it does not distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution from illegal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 organized by Socio-Legal Information Centre (SLIC) with the assistance of UNHCR. The aim of the consultation was (a) to raise awareness among government officials regarding the issue of detention of refugees, (b) to foster partnerships with various governmental departments and (c) to bridge the gaps between the various state and central governmental agencies and departments as well as non-governmental organizations and UNHCR with a view to promote information sharing, data collection, reporting, securing access to and monitoring places of immigration detention.
Representatives of West Bengal, Kolkata Police, Department of Correctional Services, Department of Women & Child Development & Social Welfare, Directorate of Social Welfare, Railway Police Force, Border Security Force, Bureau of Immigration, Foreigners Regional Registration Office, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, State Legal Services Authority were invited for the workshop. Although, many of the invitees had confirmed their participation in the workshop, the workshop was attended only by officials from the Department of Correctional Services, Kolkata Police and Bureau of Immigration and participants from UNHCR, SLIC and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.