The Supreme Court on Monday raised questions over the Assam government’s efforts to trace over 70,000 illegal immigrants who have already mixed with the local population.
A Ministry-of-Home-Affairs affidavit filed in the Supreme Court shows that 91,609 persons were declared by Foreigners Tribunals in Assam as illegal foreigners as of March 2018. Of this number, 72,486 are absconding. “This is quite a large number,” a worried Home Ministry told the court.
A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, said there may even be “undeclared foreigners” who have already succeeded in “merging with the local population” of the State.
“What is the number of these undeclared foreigners?” the CJI’s asked and it drew a blank from the Assam government.
The Home Ministry explained that persons declared as ‘illegal foreigners’ by the tribunals either abscond immediately or are already untraceable.
Presently, 829 persons declared ‘foreigners’ by the tribunals and 115 foreigners, who have completed their jail term, are lodged in the six jail-cum-detention centres.
“But where are those illegals who have neither been deported nor are lodged in the detention centres? Where are they? How will you track them? What have you done in the past five years?” Chief Justice Gogoi went on to ask Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing Assam. Mr. Mehta initially requested the Bench to defer the case.
The hearing saw the Supreme Court criticise the policy of “pushing back” illegal foreigners to Bangladesh without enquiring about their country of origin.
This was in the backdrop of the Home Ministry spelling out the obstacles in the nationality-verification process of illegal foreigners.
“They either do not provide information or give the information. Details of the country of origin depend completely upon information provided by the person,” the affidavit said. Though as a sovereign nation, India has the absolute right to deport illegal immigrants, it cannot do so randomly, the Ministry agreed with the court’s point of view
Mr. Mehta briefed the court that the “push-back” policy was dropped in 2013 and nowadays diplomatic channels are employed to determine the nationality of an illegal foreigner and to deport the person. The Ministry’s affidavit said how the Assistant High Commissioner of Bangladesh visited the detention centres to talk to detainees. If their information is proved correct, they are expeditiously issued travel documents.
“You have been pushing them back without knowing their country of origin... Now, suddenly you have grown wise and are resorting to diplomatic channels,” the CJI reacted.
The hearing saw the court ask questions on a series of connected issues. “What percentage of illegal migrants have you proceeded against? What are you doing to improve the conditions of those detained in the detention centres? How long will they remain?” the CJI asked.
The absence of the Assam Chief Secretary in court to personally answer these questions irked the Bench.
“Where is the Chief Secretary?” the CJI asked Mr. Mehta, “he was here the last time. Who exempted him from personal appearance this time? Does he get to decide that he need not come?”
The Chief Justice said, “Government of Assam is playing around with the court.”
“Your affidavits are an exercise in futility,” CJI remarked.
“We are doing our best,” Mr. Mehta responded.
“If this is your best, then you permit us to pass our orders in full exercise of our constitutional powers,” Chief Justice Gogoi said.
Finally, the court drew a personal undertaking from Mr. Mehta that the Chief Secretary would be present in court on April 8, the next date of hearing, and would only return to Assam after getting permission from the court.
The court is hearing a petition filed by activist Harsh Mander about the dismal living conditions within the four walls of the detention centres in the State.
The court noticed that many detainees continue to be lodged inside these centres even after the expiry of their term of imprisonment for illegally entering the country.