All around Europe governments hold migrants in detention centres, cutting them off from the rest of society. Migrants may be detained for a variety of reasons: if they arrive to an EU country without a visa, if they submit an asylum application or while they await deportation to their country of origin.
Detention centres have the look and feel of prisons. The windows and entryways are barred, migrants must follow a strict daily schedule, and the perimeters of the centre are lined with high walls or fences topped with barbed wire. Detention centres vary in size and quality. Some hold only 30 people while others as many as 200. Some centres are always clean and well maintained, while others centres are totally unsuitable for anyone to live in.
Most people who are detained feel like they are treated as criminals, even though they have not committed a crime. People often do not know when they will be released from detention, nor can they regularly communicate with family, friends and relatives. Detained persons have trouble following up on their immigration cases because they either do not get information, or they are unable to meet with a lawyer regularly enough to feel well informed.
Detention harms nearly everyone who experiences it. Research we have done shows that the vast majority of detainees suffer from physical and mental health ailments, such as chronic insomnia, loss of appetite and symptoms related to severe depression and anxiety. Relatively healthy people become vulnerable to harm in a detention centre, whether they are detained for as little as one month or as much as one year.
More often than not, it is unnecessary for governments to put people in harm's way by detaining them. Instead of putting people into detention, governments can instead allow migrants to live in the community. These are called 'alternatives to detention'. There are plenty of examples from around the world - and even in Europe -which show that alternatives to detention not only uphold the human dignity of migrants, but they are more cost effective for states.
- EU Policy
- Alternatives to detention
From Deprivation to Liberty (2011)
The negative effect of upon migrants has been well-documented by researchers and NGOs, as well as by policymakers and politicians. The financial cost of detention, together with the severe damage it inflicts on migrants, begs a fundamental question: are there not more cost-effective and humane ways for states to manage migration flows into their territories? In this report, JRS Europe analyses alternatives to detention and their affect on migrants by interviewing migrants themselves. It finds that community-based alternatives to detention is far more humane than putting migrants into detention centres, especially when such programmes offer comprehensive support. And in addition to the improved human impact, alternatives prove to be much less expensive than detention.
Becoming Vulnerable in Detention (2010)
Detention negatively affects nearly everyone who experiences it. People who enter a detention centre in a relatively healthy state find that after just a few weeks their physical and mental health begins to deteriorate. This study, based on interviews with 685 asylum seekers and irregular migrants detained in 21 countries, analyses the impact of detention on the individual. It shows that detainees suffer from high levels of isolation from the outside world, as well as severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. A lack of information and language barriers exacerbate these conditions. Without question, being held in a detention centre makes someone more vulnerable to harm.
What do we advocate for?
Detention should only be used as a last resort, if at all, under exceptional circumstances.
Asylum seekers should not be detained during their asylum procedure. Detention shouldn't be used as a deterrent to discourage people from migrating or seeking asylum. If detention cannot be avoided, it should be based in law and meet all legal criteria of necessity and proportionality.
Community-based alternatives should always be exhausted before resorting to detention
Research shows that in the vast majority there is no need to put migrants in detention: successful outcomes can be achieved even when migrants are living independently in the community, with adequate support. Alternatives to detention that use case management show high rates of success in that few migrants abscond from the authorities, and cases are resolved in a more dignified and fair manner.
Vulnerable persons need special attention and care
Unaccompanied minors, including age-disputed minors, should never be detained. Other vulnerable groups such as families with children, pregnant women, torture victims and persons with medical illnesses shouldn't be detained either; if they are, then they should be kept in appropriate and separate facilities, with access to all necessary care.
Detainees must have access to judicial oversight and review, as well as reliable legal assistance.
Detention should only be ordered by a judicial authority. In cases where this is not possible, then a person's detention order should be subject to regular review by a judge at least once every 30 days. Detainees should have access to reliable legal assistance so they can understand their rights and obligations, including opportunities to challenge their detention.
Living conditions should be of a good standard, and the period of detention kept as short as possible.
Conditions such as nutrition, accommodation, health care, privacy, means of communication, outdoor and leisure activities should comply with basic human rights standards, and not resemble a prison environment. Time periods of detention should be kept as short as possible, and not exceed two months.
Access to the 'outside world' should be available, and detention centres should remain open to monitoring bodies.
Detainees should be able to receive visits from family, relatives, friends, NGOs, lawyers, social and pastoral counselors and others who can offer support. Internet and telephone access should be readily available. Representatives of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other official monitoring bodes should have access to centres at all times, and to detainees as well. EU and national monitoring mechanisms should be established in order to ensure regular oversight of detention centres.
Becoming Vulnerable in Detention
It is no longer a question that detention seriously harms virtually anyone who experiences it. Scientific studies of detained asylum seekers show that detention leads to the build-up of clinically significant symptoms of severe depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even self-harm, all of which are significantly related to the length of detention. Detained children have been shown to suffer from developmental delays and emotional disturbances.
EU Policy: Who can be detained?
Rules for immigration detention are broadly set out by EU policy agreed upon by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. These rules are common standards that EU governments must apply in each of their countries, though nothing precludes a government from having better standards on detention.
There are different detention rules for asylum seekers and for irregular migrants in removal procedures.
Common EU rules on detaining asylum seekers are contained in the Reception Conditions Directive (RCD), which applies to all persons who have submitted an asylum application in the EU (except applicants in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, countries who have "opted out" of this directive).
According to this law, EU member states cannot detain a person just because he or she is an asylum seeker. Neither can they detain an asylum seeker without first using less coercive alternative measures, and without first individually assessing the person's case.
Nevertheless, the RCD does allow member states to detain asylum seekers -- as a last resort -- in these situations:
Detainees are to be kept for "as short a period as possible" and have access to a judicial review. Detainees must be immediately informed in a language they understand, or are reasonably supposed to understand, the reasons for their detention and the possibilities for challenging their detention.
Detainees must have access to free legal assistance, though member states can set certain conditions for the provision of free legal assistance.
Detention must take place, as a rule, in specialised detention facilities. When this is not possible, detention may be done in prisons, but applicants must be kept separate from ordinary prisoners. Asylum detainees should be kept separate from migrants who are not applicants. They must have access to open air spaces, and to UNHCR, NGO personnel, family, counsellors and legal advisers. Detainees must have access to information in a language they understand, or can reasonably understand, about the conditions of their detention and the rules of the facility.
Vulnerable persons and those with special needs must be especially monitored by member states. Minors can be detained only in places that are suitable for minors after less coercive measures are used, and when it is based on their best interests. Unaccompanied minors can be detained in age-appropriate facilities, but never in prisons. Female detainees must be kept separate from males, unless they are part of a family.
Resolving people's cases in the community, rather than in detention
It is no longer a question that detention seriously harms nearly everyone who experiences it. Detainees suffer from severe anxiety and depression, as well as insomnia, loss of appetite and even bacterial infections in detention centres with unhygienic conditions. Apart from being harmful, detention also ruins people's sense of dignity. They feel like they are criminals, even though they have not committed any crime.