UNHCR urges states to avoid detaining asylum-seekers

Making a Difference, 12 May 2011

© UNHCR/M.Edström
Many countries practise systematic detention of unauthorized arrivals among them asylum-seekers despite the damaging physical, psycho-social and financial impact.

GENEVA, May 11 (UNHCR) Imagine fleeing persecution at home, surviving a difficult journey, arriving in a new country to seek asylum, only to be thrown behind bars. It sounds like a refugee's worst nightmare. Unfortunately it happens every day in many countries around the world.

While many governments are increasingly detaining asylum-seekers, there is also growing realization that this practice has a drastic human impact. On Wednesday and Thursday, officials from countries on every continent joined non-governmental organizations, human rights bodies and researchers to explore alternatives to the detention of asylum-seekers, refugees, migrants and stateless people.

The global roundtable in Geneva kicks off a series of regional discussions and was hosted by the UN refugee agency and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) with support from the NGO network, the International Detention Coalition.

"Detention is generally an extremely blunt instrument to counter irregular migration. There is no empirical evidence that the threat of being detained deters irregular migration or discourages people from seeking asylum," said Erika Feller, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. "Threats to life or freedom in someone's country of origin are likely to be a greater push factor for a refugee than any disincentive created by detention policies in countries of destination."

Immigration detention as opposed to criminal or security detention refers to the detention of refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and stateless people, upon entering a territory or pending their return. Typical examples include prisons or purpose-built closed reception or holding centres.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to liberty and to protection from arbitrary detention. Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention specifies that states should not impose penalties or unnecessary restrictions on movements of refugees entering their territory without authorization.

"It is not a crime to seek asylum. Detention must therefore be a last resort, and its necessity and proportionality must be assessed on an individual basis," said Alice Edwards, a senior legal coordinator for UNHCR. "The failure of many governments to provide for or systematize alternatives to detention can put their detention policies and practices into direct conflict with international law."

In addition to the human rights and legal implications, detention also incurs health, social and financial costs. Incarceration, especially when prolonged, can cause severe psychological and physical health problems, and even lead to self-harm or suicide.

It can also make it harder for asylum-seekers who are eventually accepted to adapt to their new country, and increase resistance towards voluntary return among those who cannot stay. Some governments have been forced to pay out millions of dollars in compensation for their unlawful detention practices.

Delegates at the Geneva meeting shared global good practices on detention alternatives and practical advice on issues such as screening, assessment, community and case management, legal provision, return assistance and documentation. "The ultimate alternative is freedom no detention in the first place, or release with no conditions," said Edwards, noting that the Philippines releases asylum-seekers from detention with no conditions and provides them with asylum-seeker certificates.

Other alternatives to detention include release on condition, such as reporting in person to renew identity documents, or reporting to the police or immigration authorities at regular intervals.

Some governments choose to release on bail. Under Canada's Toronto Bail Programme, individuals are released to a government-funded NGO that provides a full range of services, including help navigating Canada's asylum and social service systems.

Individuals are told that if they fail to appear for appointments, a country-wide arrest warrant would be issued for them. This programme has achieved considerable success, with less than 4 per cent of the individuals absconding. It also avoids the high cost of detention and saves the government approximately C$167 (US$173) in costs per person per day.

Another option involves community-based (though sometimes also government-run) supervised release or case management. Belgium, for example, runs return houses for asylum-seeker families arriving with minors as well as those families awaiting return. "Coaches" are on-site to advise and prepare families for all possible outcomes, from legal stay to return. UNHCR believes that about 30 per cent of all detainees in Belgium in 2009 were asylum-seekers. Hong Kong operates a similar programme.

"Implementing alternatives to detention can help to make migration policies function more effectively," said UNHCR's Edwards, noting that less than 10 per cent of asylum-seekers and people awaiting deportation disappear when they are released to proper supervision and facilities. "The more closely governments work with NGOs and the community on these alternatives, the more it benefits us all."

Back to Basics: The Right to Liberty and Security of Person and ‘Alternatives to Detention’ of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants




UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.


Numbers are important in the aid business and UNHCR's statisticians monitor them daily.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy