There are alternatives – managing migrants the humane way

Posted on September 5, 2011

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Research identifies more cost-effective and reliable options to detention:

Robyn Sampson outside a detention centre in Lithuania

As the global population grows and becomes more mobile, across the world hundreds of thousands of migrants are being detained at any one time.

In many western countries, the focus on enforcement has intensified in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, justifying the expansion of detention at various stages of the migration process, from arrival, to processing claims and in preparation for deportation. Governments are also using detention to deter future asylum seekers and irregular migrants in response to political pressure.

This trend towards detention is increasing despite well-established concerns that detention does not deter irregular migrants and asylum seekers, that it interferes with human rights, and that it harms the health and well-being of detainees.

La Trobe University’s Robyn Sampson has been looking at alternative ways to prevent unnecessary immigration detention as part of her doctoral studies. Her work attracted considerable media attention following the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s announced of an inquiry into high rates of suicide and self-harm attempts in immigration detention centres.

Ms Sampson says: ‘It is disturbing that so many people have become so overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and despair. 

‘These feelings are common among people who have been held in captivity unjustly and who have no prospect of release or of being allowed to live a normal life in the future. Such symptoms are also seen in people who are serving time in jail for a crime they did not commit.’

Her investigation took an international perspective on migration policy and found that most countries do not use detention as the first option – and that some rarely resort to detention.

Overseen by Professor Sandy Gifford and Dr Ignacio Correa-Velez from La Trobe’s Refugee Research Centre, her studies have resulted in publication of ‘There are alternatives: A handbook for preventing unnecessary immigration detention’, a joint venture between the La Trobe Centre and the International Detention Coalition. Two members of the Coalition, Grant Mitchell and Lucy Bowring, helped write the report.

Ms Sampson says the report highlights alternatives to detention that enable asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to live in a community with freedom of movement while their migration status is resolved or they await deportation. Her study describes such programs in countries including Spain, Belgium, Canada and Hong Kong.

The handbook and its recommendations have been welcomed by international experts and refugee advocates who say it is a significant step towards improving international policy and practice in refugee and asylum detention.

‘There is growing interest among governments and other stakeholders to find reliable, cost-effective and humane ways of managing asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants without the financial and human costs that detention incurs,’ says Ms Sampson who has presented the research at round tables facilitated by the UNHCR on this issue in Geneva, Seoul, the Baltic States and Canberra.

Detention is not a deterrent

‘What we have been able to determine is that detention does not deter new arrivals. The principal aim of asylum seekers and refugees is to reach a place of safety. Those who are aware of the prospect of detention before arrival believe it is an unavoidable part of the journey,’ she says,

But detention does not have to be the only way to manage asylum seekers and irregular migrants, as Robyn Sampson discovered.

‘Countries such as Argentina avoid detention, instead assessing each case and putting in place structures and conditions that allow the individual to work towards a resolution of their migration status while in the community,’ she says.

In Sweden, an asylum seeker is registered on arrival and issued with a photo identity card that is used by immigration to track the case, and by the asylum seeker in the community to gain access to some services.

Ms Sampson speaking at the Roundtable in Geneva

On arrival, asylum seekers spend about a week in an initial transit or processing centre for government checks before they are moved into the reception program. If they have their own funds, they can live independently in the community, but most do not and are placed in open accommodation arranged by the authorities. They receive a minimal daily allowance for food and other essentials. They have access to emergency health and dental care, with children receiving the same medical care as Swedish children.

Each asylum seeker has a case worker who works with them from the beginning of the process to prepare for either a negative or positive outcome. Those who have a negative outcome are supported for about two months by the case worker to help them leave voluntarily.

Many countries are also putting in place more humane ways of dealing with detainees. For instance, in Hungary a new a border monitoring project enables designated lawyers to visit detention facilities to inform detainees of their procedural rights, including how to access the asylum system and benefit from free legal assistance. This project includes training for management and border police on ‘protection sensitive entry systems’ and communication techniques with asylum seekers who have special needs.

Are these measures working? According to Ms Sampson, the research shows that asylum seekers and irregular migrants rarely abscond while awaiting the outcome of a visa application or status determination.

‘In the US, for instance, a Department of Justice survey showed that over 85 per cent of asylum seekers who were living independently in the community without restrictions on their freedom of movement appeared for their hearings with an immigration judge, without any extra conditions being imposed,’ she says.

Community-based options also cost less says Ms Sampson – saving at least AU$86 a day – as well as reducing wrongful detention and litigation, overcrowding and long-term detention, while and protecting human rights.

The five steps

The research findings have been used to develop a Community Assessment and Placement (CAP) model.  They outline the following five steps governments can take to prevent unnecessary detention and ensure detention is only applied as the last resort:

1. A presumption against detention.
2. Individual screening and assessment to identify the needs, strengths, risks and vulnerabilities of each case.
3. An assessment of an individual’s community setting, to identify any supports that may help them with immigration proceedings.
4. Further conditions, such as reporting requirements or supervision to strengthen the community setting and mitigate any identified concerns.
5. If these conditions are shown to be inadequate, detention in line with international standards, including judicial review and of limited duration, may be used as a last resort in exceptional cases.

Ms Sampson says the CAP model does not offer a single solution to issues faced by governments in managing irregular migrants and asylum seekers.

‘It may, however, identify ways of moving forward in this difficult area of policy,’ she says.

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that despite the success elsewhere of many of these alternatives to detention, community perception that migration is ‘unregulated’ and ‘out-of-control’ remains common.

‘Negative perceptions about new arrivals are associated with broader concerns about security and crime, job availability and the maintenance of cultural heritage and national identity. It takes work to turn around these misconceptions, but accurate information is an important place to start.’

A copy of the handbook for preventing unnecessary immigration detention is available on this website.