The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Centre to provide the details of the functional detention centres in Assam and the foreigners detained there during the last 10 years.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Sanjiv Khanna also asked the authorities to apprise it of the year-wise details as to how many illegal immigrants, after being declared so by the Foreigners Tribunal functioning in Assam, were deported to their native countries in the last decade.
"We would like to know as to how many detention centres are there in Assam. We also want to know as to how many persons are lodged there and since when," the bench said.
The top court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Harsh Mander through advocate Prashant Bhushan on the plight of foreigners in detention centres. The plea alleges that they are kept in detention indefinitely just because they are not Indians and are treated as "illegal aliens".
During the brief hearing, the bench asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, to inform it whether those detained in the detention centres were declared as foreigners or were they still facing the proceedings before the tribunals.
The bench also said foreigners could not be kept in detention centres after being declared so by tribunals if the Centre had not been able to arrive at a settlement with the countries where they were to be deported.
"You can ask the neighbouring countries to accept their natives, but you cannot keep them in detention centres for all the times," the bench observed.
"The basic question is how many people have been declared foreigners and how many have been deported back and how many of them are still there," it added.
The court also sought the year-wise details of foreigners who had illegally entered India during the last 10 years.
The solicitor general, who sought time to file the details after taking instructions, said presently, there were six functional detention centres in Assam.
Bhushan alleged that these persons were facing prolonged detention, adding that they should be treated as refugees and released from the detention centres after imposing certain conditions.
He also referred to a US Supreme Court judgment and said it had held that the government could not keep foreign nationals in detention indefinitely.
The bench posted the matter to February 19 and asked the Centre to file the details within three weeks.
The top court had earlier issued notice to the Centre and the Assam government on Mander's plea, asking them to respond to it within four weeks.
The Centre had, in November last year, informed the Supreme Court that the process of framing guidelines for keeping foreign nationals in detention centres across the country was "under preparation" and the work of framing a detention manual or guidelines was being taken up "very seriously".
The top court had told the Centre to ensure that Assam adhered to the circulars or guidelines issued by it.
The apex court had, on September 12 last year, expressed displeasure that the foreign nationals kept in the detention centres of Assam were "separated" from their families and had asked the north-eastern state to look into the issue with urgency so that the families were "not broken up".