A giant heart is painted on a 10-feet high wall which is topped with barbed wire in a neighbourhood of South Kolkata. Amidst greenery, dirt roads, and small houses, the only sound coming from beyond the wall is the laughter and hooting of girls.

This is Sneha, a shelter home run by the non-profit organisation Sanlaap.

Among its residents are Bangladeshi girls who have been detained by Indian authorities for not possessing the necessary documents. The girls have been sent to stay here, until the Bangladesh authorities trace their families and take them back.

The process of repatriation is long-drawn in the best of cases. But for some of the girls, what complicates it further is the fact that their parents have also been detained and imprisoned by Indian authorities.

In the United States, the separation of 2,000 immigrant children from their families while crossing the border from Mexico this year has sparked outrage. But India has followed a similar policy for years, which has resulted in the separation of countless Bangladeshi families.

Under Section 14A of the Foreigners Act, 1946, any foreigner entering India or staying in India without the necessary documents can be jailed for a minimum of two years and up to a maximum of eight.

When immigrant families are detained, the parents are arrested and sent to judicial custody, while children above the age of six are presented before a Child Welfare Committee and the Juvenile Justice Board, before being sent to a shelter home away from the parents. There are about 80 such shelter homes in West Bengal – separate ones for girls and boys.

Sucharita Sengupta of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group documented several such cases in a study published in 2015. One of the cases was of Bhaduribala, then 40 years old and imprisoned in the Behrampur Central Correctional Home for seven years. She claimed to have left Bangladesh following political unrest. She had entered India with two little children, a boy and a girl, who were sent to shelter homes where they grew up to be adults. While in jail, Bhaduribala had not seen her daughter and son for over four years.

Activists say such separations violate international conventions.

“India is a party to the UNCRC [United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child] according to which families cannot be separated,” said Biplab Mukherjee, the organisation secretary of the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha, which works with marginalised people, including victims of cross-border violence in West Bengal. “But here we are [doing that].”

Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child can be separated from its parents only when it is in the best interests of the child – for instance, when a child is abused or neglected by its parents. If any parent is detained, imprisoned or exiled, the authorities must furnish the details of the child’s whereabouts.

West Bengal authorities, however, say the separation of families is handled sensitively.

“The jails in West Bengal are very humanitarian,” said Ananya Chakraborti, West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairperson. “I have personally witnessed cases where some jailers have allowed the child to remain with the mother in the jail beyond the stipulated time because the mother and child don’t want to be separated.”

The authorities at Sneha echoed this view. “When parents are in jail, we take the kids with us to meet them,” said Mamata Chakraborty, the superintendent of minor girls. “Sometimes parents have been sent back to Bangladesh, and they come here with proper papers to meet the kids. The mother and father know where their children are.”

The wall and the barbed wire. Photo: Devarsi Ghosh

However, activists say it is disturbing that often parents are repatriated to Bangladesh while the children continue to languish in India.

For instance, Mohidul Islam, a social worker who helps counsel Bangladeshi nationals detained in the border areas, recalled an incident involving about 20 Rohingya Muslims who had entered West Bengal through Bangladesh and were detained at the border two years ago. In the case of one family, “the mother was charged under 14A Foreigners Act and went to Dumdum jail,” Islam said. “While the son and daughter were sent to separate homes.”

Once separated, the parents and the child are treated as individual cases, each of which are heard by a different court.

“We would try and attend some of the court hearings,” said Islam. “The mother’s hearing was on one date. The children’s hearing was on another. Then, few days later, we got to know that one of the children had died.”

Often, the parents are repatriated first. Until recently, they were sent back to Bangladesh through the risky “push back” system, in which immigrants are literally pushed back across the border into their homeland. Meanwhile, the children are left behind in shelter homes.

In addition, there have been instances of traffickers presenting themselves as the parents of the girls, misleading the authorities and taking the children away. This has led to a tightening of security measures across shelter homes in West Bengal.

Difficult migrations

India and Bangladesh share a 4,097-km porous border, of which 2,217 km lie in West Bengal.

The state had the highest number of foreign prisoners in its jails in December 2015, according to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau. The latest data made publicly available by the West Bengal Correctional Services shows 3,647 Bangladeshi adults and 142 Bangladeshi children were imprisoned in the state’s jails as of April 1, 2016.

The circumstances in which immigrants are detained vary. Some families cross the border to visit relatives in India. Misinformed about the required legal documents by the agents or dalals, they end up getting detained. Others are detained while escaping political turmoil or religious persecution in Bangladesh.

Some cross the border for medical reasons. Sengupta’s report cites the example of a cancer patient at the Dumdum Correctional Home who was jailed for illegally crossing the border.

“Her medical reports and case history testified to her words,” the study notes. “Even the prison authorities requested us to make arrangements for her release as her lawyer is unable to do anything.”

A large number of cases are of women and girls who were tricked into crossing the border by agents promising work, and were later trafficked. Many of them end up in brothels as far as Bengaluru.

Sumi Bhowmik who works with Bangladeshi girls and women at Sneha said that the victims are usually poor and underprivileged. “Poverty leads them to seek work in the garment mills in Dhaka,” she said. “Dalals takes advantage of that and get them to cross the border.”

She added: “The girls don’t even understand where they are exactly going. They are as young as 13 or 15. They realise they are in India only when the Border Security Force starts talking to them in Hindi.”

In May 2012, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued a memorandum that made an exception under the Foreigners Act for victims of trafficking. In such cases, both adults and minors are meant to be sent to a shelter home before they can be repatriated.

However, this memorandum is being routinely ignored, said Mukherjee. His organisation has been writing to the National Human Rights Commission for over three years, highlighting up to 200 cases where Bangladeshi nationals have been wrongfully jailed under the Foreigners Act.

One case from November, 2016, involved the detention and jailing of three Bangladeshi women, along with three babies aged eight, two, and two, after they were charged under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. A fact-finding team from Mukherjee’s organisation discovered that the women were impoverished and had crossed the border with the help of agents in search of work. In another case from October of the same year, the organisation in its letter to the NHRC, alleged that six of the 13 women arrested and jailed under Foreigners Act were actually minors, and that their ages had been fabricated by the police before producing them in court.

A view of the India-Bangladesh border fence in Siliguri, West Bengal. Only a small part of the border is fenced. Photo: Diptendu Dutta/ AFP

The journey back

In May 2014, the West Bengal government formed a Task Force to repatriate Bangladeshi citizens. Repatriation involves verifying the identity and address of Bangladeshis. For this, state authorities first make a request to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Bangladeshi Deputy High Commission is then supposed to trace the family and confirm the person’s Bangladeshi citizenship and address, which is the hard part. If all goes well, the process takes close to 21 weeks.

“Earlier, push back was the norm, unofficially, be it for adults or children,” said Gita Banerjee, a social worker at Sneha. “Now, children aren’t pushed back because sometimes the border forces in Bangladesh mistook people coming in as trespassers and shot them. Sometimes, children even got raped.”

But the official route of repatriation is fraught with many roadblocks. For one, if someone is not confirmed to be a citizen in Bangladesh, there is nothing that can be done officially. Usually, trafficked victims give incorrect addresses, out of fear of not being accepted by their family back home. This makes it difficult for the Bangladeshi Deputy High Commission to confirm their nationality.

“Sometimes, these girls forget their own names after spending so much time in red-light areas or are too traumatised to remember anything,” Bhowmik said.

In Sneha, a trafficking victim, now 18 years old, was rescued from Mumbai five years ago. Until last month, Bhowmik said, she had given false names and wrong addresses during counselling, and could not be identified back in Bangladesh.

“Last month, however, the girl gave a different name and address,” Bhowmik said. “The address was found to be correct except the girl’s parents had moved out of that residence. She said she did not give out her real name because on coming here [Sneha], she already saw someone in the register living with her name.”

Fear and language barriers leads to miscommunication, which plays a big role in the incorrect confinement of Bangladeshi citizens, said Mohidul Islam.

For several years, Swarupnagar the block in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district where Islam lives has been a ripe area for several cross-border trafficking and border-trespassing cases because of its proximity to the India-Bangladesh border. Islam works with a consortium of eight NGOs that act as a liaison between the police and the Bangladeshi nationals detained at the border in 16 administrative blocks.

During the final stage of repatriation for children, an NGO nominated by the Task Force has to be present while the child crosses the border. Islam’s NGO has often overseen several repatriation processes in the past few years. It also intervenes to prevent the detention of minors.

“When the BSF arrests girls at the border, we are contacted to counsel them,” said Islam. “Most of these girls are young, poor, uneducated...They are initially reluctant to speak, but when we come and talk in Bengali, they feel relieved.”

“We then explain to the BSF that they haven’t come on their own, they have been tricked, so and so is their address. The BSF decides whether to send them back or take them to the police station. The BSF usually sends minors back quickly,” he added.

Bangladeshi minors detained in India, along or away from border areas, are often booked as adults, according to Sengupta’s study as well as the complaints registered by Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha.

“Most of the times, the girls themselves lie because they have been instructed by their agents to say they are 18, so that they can get work in India,” Sengupta said.

Sometimes, minor girls are booked as adults in what appears to be an altruistic move. “The intention is to send both mother and daughter together to a shelter home or jail, so that separation doesn’t happen,” Islam said. “Separation occurs if the minor is noticeably young.”