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UNHCR concerned at detention of asylum-seekers, releases new guidelines

Making a Difference, 21 September 2012

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
A mother and her children at a detention centre in Greece. UNHCR advocates for alternatives to detention, especially for vulnerable asylum-seekers such as mothers and children.

GENEVA, September 21 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday issued new guidelines on the detention of asylum-seekers and said UNHCR was concerned at its growing use in a number of countries.

"The guidelines represent UNHCR policy and are intended as advice for governments and other bodies making decisions on detaining people," spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva on Friday.

As a principle, UNHCR opposes detention of people seeking international protection. The new guidelines make clear that seeking asylum is not a criminal act, and that indefinite and mandatory forms of detention are prohibited under international law, Edwards explained.

"We are disappointed that many countries continue to hold asylum-seekers in detention, sometimes for long periods and in poor conditions, including in some cases in prisons together with common criminals," he said.

UNHCR is particularly concerned that detention is in growing use in a number of countries. Edwards said that the refugee agency's research "shows that irregular migration is not deterred even by stringent detention practises, and that practical alternatives to detention do exist. In addition, there are well-known negative and at times serious physical and psychological consequences for asylum-seekers in detention."

The new guidelines, reflecting the current state of the international law, supersede the last ones issued by UNHCR in 1999. They recognize the phenomenon of irregular migration as well as mixed movements of refugees and migrants that can strain asylum systems in many countries.

This is a particular challenge for governments, and some of them respond through detention policies and practices, extending it at times to asylum-seekers. "The fundamental right to liberty and the prohibition of arbitrary detention applies to all people regardless of their immigration or other status," Edwards stressed.

The right to seek asylum entails open and humane reception arrangements for asylum-seekers. Recent research on alternatives to detention, commissioned by UNHCR, shows that with community-based supervision arrangements, more than 90 per cent of asylum-seekers comply with conditions of release from detention.

"UNHCR calls on states to make better use of alternatives to detention. These can include various forms of reporting requirements to community and supervision schemes or accommodation in designated reception centres, but with guaranteed freedom of movement," the spokesman said.

Such solutions are important features of immigration and asylum regimes. Alternatives to detention are also far more cost-effective than detention. UNHCR will continue to carry out research to identify and promote good practices related to alternatives to detention of asylum-seekers and remains fully engaged on this issue at international and national levels.

"We stress our view that unaccompanied children should not be detained," Edwards said. "UNHCR calls on governments to also pay special attention to vulnerable asylum-seekers such as victims of torture and trauma, older persons or persons with disabilities," he added.

The UN refugee agency believes detention should be a measure of last resort, prescribed by national laws and implemented only where necessary and proportionate to a legitimate purpose in conformity with international standards.

"In line with the growth in international, regional and national monitoring and inspection bodies, we stress that detention should be subject to independent monitoring and inspection, including by UNHCR," Edwards said.

UNHCR Detention Guidelines (pdf)

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Asylum-Seekers

UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

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

Rescue at Sea

Summer, with its fair weather and calmer seas, often brings an increase in the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe. But this year the numbers have grown by a staggering amount. In the month of June, the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation picked up desperate passengers at a rate of more than 750 per day.

In late June, UNHCR photographer Alfredo D'Amato boarded the San Giorgio, an Italian naval ship taking part in the operation, to document the rescue process - including the first sighting of boats from a military helicopter, the passengers' transfer to small rescue boats and then the mother ship, and finally their return to dry land in Puglia, Italy.

In the span of just six hours on 28 June, the crew rescued 1,171 people from four overcrowded boats. Over half were from war-torn Syrian, mostly families and large groups. Others came from Eritrea and Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bangladesh and beyond. D'Amato's images and the interviews that accompanied them are windows into the lives of people whose situation at home had become so precarious that they were willing to risk it all.

Rescue at Sea

The makeshift camp at Patras

Thousands of irregular migrants, some of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees, have sought shelter in a squalid, makeshift camp close to the Greek port of Patras since it opened 13 years ago. The camp consisted of shelters constructed from cardboard and wood and housed hundreds of people when it was closed by the Greek government in July 2009. UNHCR had long maintained that it did not provide appropriate accommodation for asylum-seekers and refugees. The agency had been urging the government to find an alternative and put a stronger asylum system in place to provide appropriate asylum reception facilities for the stream of irregular migrants arriving in Greece each year.The government used bulldozers to clear the camp, which was destroyed by a fire shortly afterwards. All the camp residents had earlier been moved and there were no casualties. Photographer Zalmaï, a former refugee from Afghanistan, visited the camp earlier in the year.

The makeshift camp at Patras

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