India: Fears of coronavirus outbreak in Assam’s detention centres

The last time Gulbahar Begum, 28, saw her father at home was in November 2017. Since then, every other month, she travels nearly 145km (90 miles) to Tezpur detention centre in Sonitpur district of India’s northeastern state of Assam to meet Gul Mohammad.

Mohammad, 69, was declared an “illegal immigrant” by the Foreigners Tribunal, a quasi-judicial court in Assam, and thrown into jail for not being able to produce enough documents to prove his citizenship.
Over the past three weeks, Gulbahar is waging a legal battle to free her father due to the global coronavirus pandemic. She says worries over the health of her father do not allow her to sleep.

“My father has various health issues including a kidney ailment. His left leg often swells up,” Gulbahar, who hails from Barkhal village in Assam’s Marigaon district, told Al Jazeera.

“He should have been home in this public health crisis and not in a detention centre.”

As India struggles to contain the spread of the pandemic, families of more than 800 undocumented migrants being held indefinitely in six detention centres across Assam are worried about the safety of their loved ones.

Last year, nearly 1.9 million people – many of them Muslims – were left off a National Register of Citizens (NRC), effectively rendering them stateless. They face either deportation or detention in camps such as the one in which Mohammad is detained.

Several rights organisations have called NRC a tool used by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “to target and disenfranchise the Muslim population,” an allegation the Hindu nationalist party denies.
‘People are stuffed’

Family members of those detained fear a potential coronavirus outbreak due to overcrowding in the dentition centres, which makes physical distancing nearly impossible.

Most centres lack proper hygiene and medical care for the detainees, exacerbating the chances of a viral transmission.

“People are stuffed inside common halls. At least 50 people are kept in one room,” Gulbahar said she witnessed during one of her visits. “It is very risky for him to stay in such a condition.”

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