India Sends Bangladeshis Home as People Flee War, Famine, and Deprivation around the World, the United States, Europe, India, and Australia Are Reacting to the Influx by Rethinking or Retooling Their Refugee and Immigration Policies

Article excerpt

TASLEEMA ALI is missing. The 16-year-old daughter of a rag-picker was sleeping with her family in their two-room hovel in East Delhi's New Seemapuri Colony when the policemen came. It was 2 a.m., and her father Azhar Ali had gone to sleep in his rag-picker's shop nearby, to make way for a visiting grandmother.

That night in late September, policemen taking part in an unofficial campaign that the press here has labeled "Operation Push-Back" rounded up Tasleema and other "illegal immigrants" from Bangladesh who live in this desperately poor section of the Indian capital. Witnesses say the policemen came barging through the jute curtains that screen the hovels' entrances and residents fled. Tasleema and her grandmother were among the immigrants who were put into police vans and taken away.

"My wife came running and told me what had happened," Mr. Ali says. "I was sick with worry for my daughter and mother-in-law. I asked around, and found that all my neighbors who had been caught had been taken to a detention camp in Narela, in another corner of Delhi."

He rushed to the camp, where he met many neighbors, but none had seen his daughter. Now more than a month later, Ali does not know if his daughter and mother-in-law are alive or dead, in India or deported to Bangladesh.

Immigrants here assert Tasleema and the others were taken from Delhi to Calcutta by train, then to the Bangladeshi border by truck, and later forced to walk across by the Border Security Force (BSF). Diplomatic row

Allegations of brutality during the short-lived operation has led to a diplomatic row between India and Bangladesh.

The Indian government admits that 132 men, women, and children were deported from Delhi in late September. Some had their heads shaved before being deported so that they could be easily identified if they tried to return.

But India's Home Ministry denies that an Operation Push-Back was ever a coordinated government program. The head shaving, a ministry spokesman says, was an "abberation, and disciplinary proceedings have been started."

In past years, as Indian newspapers and the parliament debated how to handle the influx of immigrants, the Bangladeshi government in Dhaka kept quiet. But politicians in the Bangladeshi parliament reacted strongly to recent reports of the operation, calling the Indian action inhumane. The Bangladeshi government officially refused entry to the 132 persons, describing them as Indian nationals. But the families of those immigrants say they are still missing.

Bangladesh's Foreign Minister A. S. M. Mostafizur Rahman said India's push-back was a unilateral action and "against international norms."

"Never before in Bangladesh's 21-year-old history has such an unanimity been found on an issue involving India, both in parliament and in the streets," wrote Haroon Habib, a Bangladeshi journalist.

Embarrassed by the press attention, the Indian Foreign Ministry has tried to play down the border episode. But the issue was high on the agenda during the Bangladeshi foreign minister's visit to New Delhi Nov. 15.

Bangladesh officially maintains that there are no illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India, but diplomats from Dhaka privately admit the influx is real. They note that it is difficult to distinguish between Bangladeshi immigrants and ethnic Bengalis from the Indian state of West Bengal. …


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