Countries around the world are increasingly responding to influxes of irregular migrants and asylum seekers by simply locking them up. States cite national security concerns and suggest that such punitive measures will make undocumented migrants and asylum seekers think twice before entering their territory.
In reality, there is no evidence that the threat of detention is a deterrent against irregular migration or that it discourages people from seeking asylum. But there is plenty of evidence that it is detrimental to the physical and mental health of nearly everyone who experiences it.
Civil society groups have been particularly vocal about the negative consequences of detention on children and other vulnerable groups, while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has pointed out that under the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is unlawful to penalize asylum seekers for illegal entry or stay provided they present themselves to the authorities without delay.
But in the current economic climate, it is the mounting cost of detention that is giving many governments pause. Grant Mitchell, director of the International Detention Coalition (IDC), an umbrella organization with 300 member groups in 50 countries, said that while there continues to be “massive growth” in detention in a number of countries, “equally, we’re seeing a lot of states that have been using detention for 15 or 20 years finding it to be increasingly expensive and hard to manage and not working as a way to deter people.”
Changes in thinking
A recent report by the National Immigration Forum found that the US will spend over US$5 million a day on immigration detention during the fiscal year 2013/14, based on its current capacity of 31,800 detention beds. But the approximately $159 per day that it costs to detain a migrant in the US is relatively low compared to the $210 per day that the Canadian Border Services Agency pays for a bed in a provincial jail or the incredible $540 per day that Sweden spends on keeping someone in one of its detention centres.
Alternatives to detention, even those that include the provision of housing and various kinds of support, come in at a fraction of the cost.
“There’s potentially huge savings,” said Philip Amaral of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, who authored a 2011 report examining alternatives to detention. “Before the recession, the economic argument wasn’t so compelling because [detention] was seen as a necessary cost to bear. Now states are becoming more interested in the cost argument,” he told IRIN.
States are also increasingly legally bound to use detention only as a last resort, particularly in the case of asylum seekers and children. Last year, UNHCR released new guidelines relating to the detention of asylum seekers that emphasized the unlawfulness of “arbitrary” detention in which less coercive alternatives have not been considered. The European Union Return Directive also stipulates that member states should not use detention if “other sufficient but less coercive measures can be applied”. Still, Amarel noted that while many EU states have since written alternatives to detention into their laws, most are not implementing them in practice.
“They fear that migrants will abscond given the chance, despite the evidence that if you have alternatives to detention that provide comprehensive services and legal assistance and inform them of all the possible outcomes that might come of their case, then compliance rates really jump up,” he said. “Member states are also not at a place yet where they can provide good alternatives to detention, largely because they don’t know how or aren’t willing to invest resources. It’s not good enough to just release people onto the streets into destitution.”
JRS defines alternatives to detention as “any policy, practice or legislation that allows asylum seekers and migrants to live in the community with freedom of movement… while they undertake to resolve their migration status and/or while awaiting removal from the territory.”
Various models are being tried in different countries, with varying levels of efficacy. “We didn’t find one country with the perfect model, but we found a lot of good practices that can be combined to make effective programmes,” said Mitchell of the IDC, which has produced a handbook on preventing unnecessary immigration detention.
He added that all of the most successful programmes shared common elements, such as the provision of adequate material support, early access to free legal advice and a case management system that keeps migrants informed at every stage. “A lot of governments think that legal advice can bog down a claim, when in fact our research found that early legal advice and intervention reduces the time to complete a case and increases chances of voluntary return.”
“Treating people humanely and fairly at the very beginning means they’ll engage properly with the process,” agreed Alice Edwards, chief of UNHCR’s protection policy and legal advice section, who wrote a 2011 paper on alternatives to detention.
Both Edwards and Mitchell cited a model used in Belgium as an example of a best practice. The programme houses irregular migrants and asylum seekers with children in government-owned apartments pending the outcome of their cases. Each family is assigned a “coach” who explains the immigration process, ensures their basic needs are met and makes appointments with doctors, lawyers and the immigration authorities.
“The primary goal is to persuade families to return voluntarily, but it’s not the only goal,” explained Geert Verbauwhede, an advisor with Belgium’s Immigration Office. “For us, it’s also a positive outcome if they obtain a staying permit.”
The programme, which started in 2008, remains fairly small, with only 25 family units, but Verbauwhede said that in the future, the coaching or case management element of the programme could also be used for migrants living in their own housing.
In Sweden, a similar alternative to detention is used for asylum seekers, around 24,000 of whom are housed in apartments managed by the Swedish Migration Board and another 13,000 of whom live with relatives or in their own accommodation. Upon arrival, they are assigned a case officer who handles their asylum application and a reception officer who helps them with everyday needs, such as finding schools for their children and making sure they receive a subsistence allowance.
“If people feel they’ve been taken care of and their case has been properly scrutinized, they’re more likely to accept the outcome,” Niclas Axelsson, a specialist in detention issues with the Swedish Migration Board, told IRIN. “It’s about good behaviour management and treating people with respect and having good communication with them.”
Sweden still maintains nine small detention units in five cities, but detention is primarily used for asylum seekers who refuse to accept a negative decision and return home voluntarily. “We don’t want to use detention unless it’s necessary,” said Axelsson.
A Toronto-based non-profit called the Toronto Bail Programme (TBP) makes uses of a slightly different model. In Canada, over 90 percent of asylum seekers are released into the community with minimal conditions that may include payment of bail. For those unable to afford the bail amount or considered to be a flight risk, a request may be sent to the TBP asking the programme to take them on as a client. As a substitute for bail, TBP provides professional supervision at a cost of just over $9 a day to about 312 clients. The clients, who include irregular migrants as well as asylum seekers, are initially required to report to the TBP office twice a week.
“If they prove to us they’re doing something constructive with their time, then we can minimize reporting,” said Dave Scott, TBP’s founder and executive director.
Most of the asylum seekers qualify for work permits, but TBP also helps them apply for welfare benefits and social services. Clients with mental health or addiction problems receive additional supervision from qualified staff. TBP’s lost client ratio for the 2012/13 fiscal year was just under 5 percent, well below the 10 percent stipulated by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Scott’s pragmatic approach includes careful screening of potential clients. “I ask, ‘Should this person be released without conditions?’ Also, I don’t want to get involved with people who are about to be removed or serious criminality cases,” he told IRIN. “I’m not the Catholic Church or the Salvation Army.”
According to Amaral of JRS, alternatives to detention programmes that have been less successful are those that are only used when detention centres reach capacity or when a refused asylum seeker faces imminent removal.
“This has been a failure of a programme in the UK, where they start at the end stage when the outcome has already been decided,” he said. “It doesn’t work when the authorities don’t give migrants the chance to explore all possible outcomes from the start.”
Successful alternatives to detention programmes share almost identical outcomes, according to the IDC’s research. These include an average cost savings of around 80 percent compared to detention and an average compliance rate of 95 percent, meaning that very few of the migrants fail to comply with reporting requirements or do not show up for court appearances.
For Axelsson of the Swedish Migration Board, replicating successful programmes in other countries depends on having not only the appropriate policies and resources, but also the political will. “If you look at [asylum seekers] as criminals, I think perhaps you’ll have a problem,” he said.
“It’s important that you try to change perspectives and ask yourself, ‘If I was in the applicant’s shoes, how would I like to be treated?’”