Changing a Broken Record: Unnecessary Immigration Detention in Europe

In May 2011 the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) led a Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention for asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and stateless persons. This conference made some simple requests: that those migrating or seeking asylum are treated with respect, that detention is used as an exceptional measure of last resort, and that regulations and practices relating to migration applications are transparent, fair and just. Such conclusions are neither radical, nor astonishing. They are basic principles enshrined in legislation and recommendations from the EU, Council of Europe and the UN. Why, then, does the unnecessary detention of people innocent of any crime continue throughout Europe?

Whichever view you take, detention doesn’t work. It is expensive, violates human rights and has detrimental effects on those detained. Huge economic savings have been made in countries where successful programmes offering alternatives to detention for asylum seekers, irregular migrants, and stateless persons are in operation. InAustralia, for example, the cost per person per day in detention is $339 AUS. The cost of alternatives is $7AUS – $39 AUS. The rate of absconding is similarly low when alternatives to detention are applied: a pilot programme for asylum seekers in the UK whose asylum claims were unsuccessful produced a 95.5 per cent compliance rate among the participants. These examples are not exceptions. Alternatives to detention have proved again and again that they are successful and that detaining migrants is more expensive and less effective at encouraging compliance. Fundamentally, detaining someone on the grounds that they might commit a crime otherwise is wrong.

The most compelling evidence against the value of immigration detention can be found in the effects on individuals, not just during detention but for years after their release. Numerous studies show depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and anxiety disorders are common examples of the mental health effects as a result of detention. For example, one report revealed that over 90 per cent of young women expressed a need for improved medical attention in detention centres while another showed suicide rates among detained asylum seekers in the UK was 211 per 100,000 (compared to both mainstream prisoners – 122/100,000 – and the national average – 9/100,000).

Such treatment of vulnerable people seeking refuge and a better life in Europe is clearly shameful. Change is needed, but where does the answer lie? Legislation in this area is already in place: including, among others, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There are also recommendations and examples of alternatives to detention which provide guidance to European states. For example, the Council of Europe’s 10 guiding principles on the detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants offer advice on the correct use of detention while the Community Assessment and Placement model (CAP) provides a five-step guide covering the whole process of asylum and migration applications. Numerous programmes both within Europe and further afield – notably Canada and Australia – offer examples of successful alternatives which governments can replicate. So why is arbitrary immigration detention still a problem in Europe?

Legislation, recommendations, and evidence from other countries are clearly not sufficient. What is needed is a fundamental change of attitudes towards asylum seekers and irregular migrants. The cycle of mistrust has to be broken. There remains a current running through European states where immigration is viewed as a problem needing to be dealt with firmly – a view which is only increasing as xenophobic populist politicians gain momentum. We have to stop trying to use harsh immigration practices as deterrents; they do not work and are based on incorrect assumptions that migration brings trouble and that rejected asylum claims automatically lead to criminal activity. The majority of those seeking asylum in Europe are hoping to lead lives they are unable to lead at home: lives distinguished by peace, equality, transparency, and community. Forming national immigration legislation around these characteristics will ensure a fairer and brighter future for European residents, old and new.

About Cat Hellewell

Cat is a Programme Assistant on Criminal Justice and the EU Multiannual Financial Framework at the Quaker Council for European Affairs.
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