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Overcrowded Assam detention centres spark fears of coronavirus outbreak

The families of more than 800 undocumented migrants – that are being held indefinitely in six detention centres across Assam in India – expressed their concerns about the safety of their loved ones, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

Last year, the government effectively rendered around 1.9 million people stateless, of which were mainly Muslims, after they were left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Family members stressed that overcrowding in detention centres makes social distancing very difficult and many centres lacking proper hygiene and medical facilities for detainees increases the likeliness of a coronavirus outbreak.      

Families' recount of detention centre conditions

Gulbahar Begum, the daughter of a detainee who is currently in Tezpur detention centre, detailed the dire conditions she witnessed during one of her visits.

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

“I think I would never see him alive. And the government has to take responsibility for his death,” she added.

Since 2009, dozens of people have died in detention centres, with the latest casualty being 60 year-old-old detainee, Rabeda Begum, who died on Sunday.      

Botu Miya, the husband of a detainee who was is currently held in Silchar detention centre, expressed her discomfort at the state of the detention centre on her recent visit.

“The condition in the detention camps is inhumane and without basic facilities like bedding and toilets. And keeping her in such place amid this disease is dangerous,” she said.

However, deputy commissioner of Sonitpur district, Manvendra Pratap Singh, insisted there were sufficient measures in place to ensure the safety of inmates are not compromised.

“We have stopped taking in new inmates. Everyone is being screened by the doctors on a regular basis and there does not seem to be any such possibility of a coronavirus outbreak,” he said.

Many families have made desperate efforts to secure bail from courts to avoid their loved ones from being at threat when the virus becomes a destructive force inside the detention centres. However, with many courts being closed, this has put the status of the detainees in limbo.

Response to concerns

Several human rights organisations have urged for the release of the detainees amid the pandemic’s worsening circumstances.    

mnesty International India, described the detention centres as having “appalling living conditions” and called for immediate release of inmates declared foreigners, in a statement they released on Monday.

“Assam government must recognise that the detainees in overcrowded detention centres face a heightened risk of infection and must do everything to protect them starting with their immediate release,” said Amnesty's executive director Avinash Kumar.

Non-profit group, Justice and Liberty Initiative, submitted pleas to the top court, calling for the release of inmates on humanitarian grounds. The group’s leader demanded that “they should be immediately released.” The Supreme Court will hear this plea among others on April 13.

Assam saw its first coronavirus fatality today, with at least a further 28 positive cases recorded.

Read more here.

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