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Migrant Detention Leads to Harm

By Philip Amaral, Sofia Karlsson | Jesuit Refugee Service Europe | June 30, 2010

CREDIT: Romel Jacinto (CC).

Detention of immigrants has increased throughout Europe in recent years. In 2008, the European Parliament adopted the Return Directive on treatment and repatriation of undocumented migrants, allowing states to detain those lacking valid documentation for up to 18 months. As countries have adopted tougher policies, a growing number of refugees and asylum seekers who enter the region without valid travel documents are also being detained. Thus it has become common practice to use detention as a means to fight immigration.

The total amount of money spent on detention around Europe is unknown, but country-specific statistics indicate that costs are quite significant. Many countries have been criticized for inadequate living conditions in the detention facilities, indicating that there are negative impacts on the mental and physical health of the detainees.

A new study detailing the effects of detention on asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants was released June 8 by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, an organization that advocates for the rights of migrants and refugees. "Becoming Vulnerable in Detention" was conducted in partnership with NGOs in 23 EU countries and is based on 685 interviews conducted over an 18-month span, documenting the personal accounts of detainees.

Philip Amaral, policy and advocacy officer at JRS Europe, coordinated the study and presented his findings at a conference in Brussels for an audience of EU institutions, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, journalists, and students. Amaral corresponded with Policy Innovations about the report and about his expectations for future policy-making with regard to detention practices.


PI: What was the most important new finding from the detainees' personal stories?

PHILIP AMARAL: The most important finding of the study is that it clearly shows that migrant detention harms all persons who experience it. Previous studies on vulnerability within the context of migrant detention have focused almost exclusively on officially recognized categories of vulnerable persons, such as pregnant women, unaccompanied children, and the medically ill. Our study indeed validates their vulnerability to detention, but it goes one step further: Vulnerability is not merely a matter of predetermined categories, but more a matter of the personal, social, and environmental factors in a person's life that influence his or her susceptibility to harm within the environment of detention.

In this way we can see that the "30-year-old single male" is also very vulnerable in detention. Our study shows that his inability to communicate in a common language with detention center staff and co-detainees opens him up to verbal and physical abuse, and impacts the psychological stress he experiences. The prison-like architecture of the detention center, and the isolation he experiences, leads to a sense of imprisonment. Furthermore, weight loss, insomnia, and untreated medical needs are all ways in which detainees become more vulnerable during detention.

PI: Were there any unexpected discoveries?

PHILIP AMARAL: Despite the very adverse conditions detainees experience—loss of rights, isolation from loved ones, severe psychological stress—they still, for the most part, perceive themselves in a positive way. In everything they have said one can sense that there is great strength and determination to persevere through detention. We in the outside world label them as "detainees," "asylum seekers," or "illegal immigrants;" they label themselves in very human terms: "I am a hard worker," "I am strong," and so forth.

But despite their strength, the results of the study show that detention imposes such a strong negative force upon detainees that, over time, it degrades their dignity. In the worst-case scenario, detention leaves people completely broken. And this is the second unexpected discovery of the study: Detention is harmful in the same way for a broad spectrum of people. Even in detention centers where the living conditions were found to be good, the mere imposition of detention and the restriction of liberty that comes with it is far too great for most people to bear.

PI: The study was presented at a conference in Brussels. What are your hopes for future policy-making on detention in the European Union?

PHILIP AMARAL: The conference in Brussels invited the input of a wide variety of important stakeholders: EU institutional representatives from the European Parliament, Commission, and Council of Member States, the UN Refugee Agency, academics, and nongovernmental organizations. Despite the variety of opinions, most agreed that detention is a negative measure that must be used only as a last resort, and with adequate safeguards put in place. Detention is certainly not going away anytime soon. But in legislative-making circles at the EU level, there is momentum toward restricting its use and altogether ending it for certain categories of people, such as unaccompanied minors.

Our hope is that future policy-making at the EU and national level will continue in this direction, and that policymakers will acknowledge the benefits of establishing alternatives to detention. Certain EU Member States have implemented alternatives to detention for select categories of people, such as families with children, and in many ways these measures have been successful. Detention is a costly measure not only in economic terms, but especially in human terms. If the EU and its Member States wish to sustain their migration management policies, then they will have to rely much less on detention and more on non-custodial alternatives that meet the interests of both states and migrants.


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