The February 13 terror blast at Pune’s German Bakery has turned fresh attention on the issue of foreign students living illegally in the city.
On Thursday, Home Minister R.R. Patil asked the Home department to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state, including students.
Pune, a university centre 120 km from Mumbai, is a big draw for students from India and abroad. About 20,000 foreigners study there – that’s nearly 45 per cent of all foreign students studying in India.
Pune’s student community is an easy target – its campuses have no security worth speaking of, and foreign students living in the city after the expiry of their visas are asked few or no questions by the police’s Foreigners’ Registration Office (FRO).
Hindustan Times entered all three campuses – the English Language Teaching Institute of Symbiosis (ELTIS) at Model Colony, Fergusson College at Deccan Gymkhana, and the University of Pune campus – without being asked for any identity card, or any kind of security check.
Most of these foreign students come for short-term certificate courses in English, and stay on to do graduate and post-graduate courses. Take Iranian Sina Mortezaie (25), who is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in geology from Pune’s Fergusson College.
Sina is one of 4,500 Iranian students in the city – they form the largest foreign student community in Pune, followed by those from Africa, then Afghanistan.
Sina arrived five years ago, did a basic certificate course in English, and went on to study geology.
For five years, until the evening of February 13, all was well for Sina, until he lost his friend from Iran, 25-year-old Saeid Abdolkhani in the blast.
“I don’t feel safe anymore. There are so many students here from different countries, many with expired visas and foreign registrations,” he says, looking at a picture of Abdolkhani put up in the common area at the English Language Teaching Institute of Symbiosis (ELTIS).
“We never have checks by the FRO. All you need to do to extend your registration is pay a $30 (approximately Rs 1450) penalty,” he says. Foreign students are required to register themselves at FRO within 14 days of arrival, with their documents. For nationals of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the registration period is seven days.
Students failing to register within the deadline need to pay a penalty of $30 in the initial period of one month of overstay.
The relatively minor fine often sees students getting away with lengthy overstays. The police also say they have a manpower shortage and excess loads when they are pressed into security for VIP visits.
“The next step is that the police can lodge a compliant, if they prove an intention other than education. It can lead to imprisonment and deportation,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police (Special Pranch) Ravindra P Sengaokar.
Dr A D Adsool, vice chancellor of University of Pune said: “We have 145 people to look after the 441-acre campus – we need more. We are floating tenders for equipment like metal detectors and more people to guard our students.”