New report criticises Spanish practices on migrant detention

08 June 2018

Brussels, 8 June 2018 – The Jesuit Migrant Service (Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, SJM) in Spain published “Sufrimiento Inútil” (“Needless Suffering”), its annual report on the detention of irregular migrants by the Spanish authorities. SJM argues that keeping irregular migrants in detention centres leads to unnecessary human suffering, serves no purpose, and should be abolished.

Detention on the rise

In 2017, almost nine thousand migrants were brought to detention centres in Spain — a number that strained the capacity of the detention-centre system. Instead of reconsidering whether it is necessary to deprive so many people of their liberty, the Spanish government announced that they would meet the situation by building three new detention centres.

Needless suffering

In these circumstances, Spanish civil society organisations — including SJM — play a vitally important role. They visit detention centres, monitor the conditions, listen to the detainees, and, when necessary, help them to file complaints with the Spanish courts. While visiting Spanish detention centres, SJM has found that the conditions are very poor — often worse than in prisons. In theory, Spanish law recognises that detained migrants are not convicts, and should not be kept in prison-like or punitive conditions. In practice, however, this law is widely ignored. In spite of repeated protests from civil society organisations, and in spite of complaints repeatedly upheld by the Spanish courts and by the Spanish national ombudsman, migrants continue to be kept in poor, prison-like facilities, subject to the arbitrary authority of detention centre staff.

Moreover, detainees may be denied access to adequate healthcare, as well as access to the legal advice that they would need to contest their detention, or to apply for asylum. In some cases, detention centre staff try to prevent detainees from communicating with the outside world — for example, by preventing them from using mobile phones, or from receiving visits from civil society organisations. This is despite the fact that the Spanish courts have held that receiving visits from civil society organisations is a legal right.

Finally, and most importantly, SJM argues that detention serves no clear purpose: irregular migrants are not a threat to anyone, and about two thirds of those detained are eventually released, making detention useless for the purpose of enforcing returns.

End migrant detention

SJM advocates for the abolition of the detention-centre system. Spain needs to find a better, more humane approach to dealing with irregular migration. One step towards a better approach would be to recognise that many irregular migrants are actually refugees, who are entitled to protection under international law. If refugees were offered safe and legal channels to come to Europe, they would not be forced to resort to crossing borders irregularly. 

Apart from this, another essential step towards a more humane system is to develop alternatives to detention, such as temporary accommodation in open reception centres with dignified living conditions.

While SJM’s report focuses on Spain, many of the problems that it uncovers are also found in other European countries. JRS-Europe works with SJM, and with other partners around Europe, to promote alternatives to migrant detention.

Learn more about JRS Europe’s work on migrant detention here.