View Comments

Becoming Vulnerable in Detention

Analyzing the Impact of Detention on the Individual

Jesuit Refugee Service Europe | June 29, 2010


In partnership with NGOs in 23 EU Member States, JRS-Europe oversaw the collection of 685 one-on-one interviews with detainees. The size and scope of the sample reveals that, despite the diversity of personal circumstances of the detainees, detention does have a common negative effect upon the persons who experience it. In addition to detainees, project partners interviewed detention centre staff and other NGOs operating within the centers, and conducted a survey of asylum and immigration laws in their respective countries. This data is included within each of the 22 national reports that are published in the full DEVAS report.

The objective of the DEVAS project was to investigate and analyze vulnerability in detained asylum seekers and irregular migrants: both the way in which pre-existing vulnerable groups cope with detention, and the way in which detention can enable vulnerability in persons who do not otherwise possess officially recognized vulnerabilities and special needs.

This study builds on previous reports and projects that investigated vulnerability in detention. It analyses the situation of individuals and groups that possess officially recognized special needs, such as minors, young women with children, the elderly and persons with medical illness. But this study also analyses the situation of detainees who often go unnoticed: young single men, persons without stated physical and mental health needs, and persons in prolonged detention. Most importantly, this study pushes the discussion on vulnerability and detention one step further because its results are based exclusively on the voices of detainees. Thus the understanding of vulnerability that emerges from this study characterizes the experiences of detainees as they told it themselves.


The data reveals that detention is implemented in a broad variety of cases and situations. Everyone, from asylum seekers to irregular migrants, minors to older persons, and from medically ill persons to the healthy, can be subject to detention irrespective of their special needs and vulnerabilities.

Detention, as observed from the research, is used in a mostly indiscriminate manner with little deference to personal choice and preferences. The cases that were recorded demonstrate a situation where detainees can do little to alter their circumstances within the detention centre. They must accept the state of living conditions within the detention centre, and cohabitation with persons of differing nationalities, cultures and even personalities and temperaments; and they must accept the restriction on their freedom to move about as they please, even within the confines of the detention centre. Although exceptions may exist in some Member States for persons with special needs, the ‘average detainee’ will find that he or she is unable to exercise a degree of personal choice and must therefore accept detention as one accepts a punishment, rather than an administrative procedure.

The results show that persons with officially recognized needs, such as minors, young women and the medically ill, are indeed negatively impacted by detention. The adult environment of detention immediately puts minors at a disadvantage, especially if they are unaccompanied, because they are vulnerable to the behavior of the staff and to the prison-like atmosphere of detention, for example. The data findings show that women, especially between the age of 18 and 24, especially suffer from adverse mental health impacts. The medically ill may not be able to receive the treatment they need because the detention centre only provides for basic medical care.

In almost every case, the study shows that detention has a distinctively deteriorative effect upon the individual person. Only in very few cases do detainees describe their personal situation as having improved after detention; and just as few say that detention has not impacted them whatsoever. The vast majority of detainees describe a scenario in which the environment of detention weakens their personal condition. The prison-like environments existing in many detention centers, the isolation from the "outside world," the unreliable flow of information and the disruption of a life plan lead to mental health impacts such as depression, self-uncertainty and psychological stress, as well as physical health impacts such as decreased appetite and varying degrees of insomnia. The manner in how detainees see themselves is significantly impacted by detention. In this context, self-perception becomes an important indicator of the effects of detention because as an administrative measure, it should not bring such detrimental personal consequences.

The biggest implication from the DEVAS research is the way in which detention—frequently implemented as a tool of asylum and immigration policymaking for the EU and its Member States—leads to high rates of vulnerability in people. It calls into question the proportionality and necessity of detention in relation to the ends it seeks to achieve: that is, to systematically manage migration flows so that States may enforce their asylum and immigration policies.

The research reveals that the human cost of detention is too high, regardless of the achievability of these ends because

  • The negative consequences of detention and its harmful effects on individual persons are disproportionate to their actual situations, in that they have committed no crime and are only subject to administrative procedures, and;
  • It is unnecessary to detain persons and thus make them vulnerable to the harmful effects of detention because non-custodial alternatives to detention do exist.

Download: Becoming Vulnerable in Detention (PDF, 4.07 M)

Read More: Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Migration, Security, Europe

blog comments powered by Disqus

Site Search

Global Research Engine

This search includes our Core Network partners.

Join Our Mailing Lists

The Journal