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Care over Imprisonment: Alternatives to Detention of Migrant Children

5 Oct

Editors Note:   GAPW actively covered and, where possible, participated in the General Assembly’s High Level Segment on Migration and Development.   It was a particularly rich engagement, highlighting many critical security issues, including the increasing militarization of borders and criminalizing of migrants.  Tereza Steinhublova from the Czech Republic, who has had direct experience working with migrants in the UK, offers this analysis of an event focused on the needs of migrant children. 

In countries all over the world hundreds of thousands of people are being held in detention centers due to not having proper documentation or legal status in the country. This problem applies to migrants and refugees as well as asylum seekers. In many cases, people are detained for long or indefinite periods of time in cells, just as if they were criminals. They are not allowed to leave, and visits are limited.

The United Nations High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development was held at the UN Headquarters in New York on October 3rd and 4th, 2013. On October 2nd the International Detention Coalition (IDC), with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Government of Liechtenstein, held a side-event titled Expert Meeting on Alternatives to the Immigration Detention of Children. The meeting had two main areas of focus – the legal framework for protecting children who face immigration detention, and the discussion of suitable alternatives to child detention, including a specific example from Belgium.

In opening remarks, Ms. Jyoty Sanghera, Chief of the Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues Section of the OHCHR, explained that detention centers are often run by police or prison authorities who lack appropriate training. Moreover, detention facilities rarely provide the necessary protection migrants require, such as basic healthcare, access to psychological help and legal assistance with their cases. This becomes even more of an issue for vulnerable groups such as children, especially if they are unaccompanied, because they easily become targets of violence. Mr. Francis Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, provided a well-structured presentation on how child detention contributes to the violation of children’s rights as set out by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  Both Mr. Crépeau and Mr. Grant Mitchell, the Director of the International Detention Coalition, emphasized that the detention of children can never serve their best interests. Mr. Crépeau also explained the effects of detention on children through a legal lens, noting that unaccompanied children are sometimes detained in adult facilities due to an incorrect age assessment in the immigration procedure upon arrival.

While studying at the University of Kent I volunteered with the Kent Refugee Action Network, which provides mentoring for unaccompanied young asylum seekers. In some cases, even if the person had been living in the country for a relatively long period of time and was granted asylum, psychological trauma was still something they battled. In many cases the migration journey itself is very stressful and even traumatizing. Being placed in prison-like conditions can further contribute to emotional stress. (Even if children are detained together with their families, the family often becomes separated by gender.) These children can become targets of violence, including sexual violence, which has serious negative effects on their psychological and overall well-being. In addition, children who leave detention centers are rarely provided with adequate care and often end up destitute. For these reasons many groups, such as the IDC, have begun to push for alternatives to detention, which would decrease the suffering of people in transition.

If so much evidence exists that detention centers are an inappropriate response, why do states continue to detain migrants? Mr. Crépeau explained that states often justify the confinement of migrants mainly in security terms or as a deterrent. However, he also stressed that there is no empirical evidence that detention deters irregular migration or discourages asylum seekers. Mr. Mitchell explained that asylum seekers awaiting a decision are much less likely to flee and therefore detention is unnecessary. Unfortunately, in many countries migrants are both criminalized and stigmatized, which contributes to xenophobia and fuels the growth of extreme right-wing activity.

What are suitable alternatives to detention? All panelists agreed on the primary responsibility to care, with most emphasis placed on case management, guardians and open family units. Mr. Crépeau argued that the state needs to respect the basic rights of children, such as the right to education, adequate housing and medical care, which cannot be achieved in detention. He argued that in cases where whole families are detained, the family should be eligible for alternative measures such as a supervised release or required reporting. Mr. Mitchell noted that many states have taken positive steps towards the reduction of detention facilities, such as implementing new laws that prohibit child detention, listing Panama, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, China, Venezuela, Australia and Sweden as examples. Mr. Mitchell explained that many countries are being innovative in dealing with migrant children who are alone. In the Philippines, for instance, children are placed into the family welfare system while their case is being processed. Similarly, in the Netherlands, children are assigned guardians from NGOs who then provide them with basic care.

Mr. Bertrand de Crombrugghe (whose surname turned out to be the biggest linguistic challenge at the meeting!!) explained how Belgium has been successful in implementing the alternative system of ‘open family units.’ The units have received international recognition by the UNHCR, the Council of Europe, as well as some states. Belgium has been using this system for regular migrants since 2008, and in 2009 they extended it to include asylum-seeking families as well. The open family unit system involves the placement of families into individual houses intended for temporary stay while they await the resolution of their case. Unlike detention centers, family units allow the family the freedom of movement. Most importantly, families are in contact with supporting officers who provide assistance towards a tangible outcome to their situation – a legal right to remain or a voluntary return home. Families are also given other necessary support such as legal assistance and logistical and medical support.  Unaccompanied minors are placed into the care of a guardian who serves a similar purpose as the supporting officer, but also accompanies the child to necessary legal proceedings.

What some states fail to recognize is that alternatives to detention would not only benefit the migrants themselves, but also the state budget. Mr. Mitchell explained that alternative measures tend to be on average 80% cheaper than detention facilities. Mr. de Crombrugghe noted that family units bear a lower cost to the Belgian state than detention facilities. All panelists stressed the need for continuous development and dialogue on alternatives to detention.

Overall the event was very well organized and although technical difficulties prevented the screening of the short film titled The Invisible Picture Show, all panelists provided well-structured arguments on the need for alternatives to detention. It was motivating to attend such an event, especially since the numbers of migrants are at high levels and difficult matters such as this are often not given enough attention by the international community.

 Tereza Steinhublova