Post by Alice Gerlach, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, who is working on how immigration removal centres in the UK prepare detainees for release or removal.

Last week the Council of Europe (CoE) hosted a two-day conference on ‘Immigration Detention in Europe: Establishing Common Concerns and Developing Minimum standards’ as the first stage in developing minimum standards of detention. The conference was jointly organised by the Council of Europe and HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), as part of their role as co-ordinator of the UK National Preventative Mechanism (NPM). NPMs like HMIP are independent organisations for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment. They exist as part of national responsibilities when signing up for the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (OPCAT). The list of attendees included NPM representation from nearly 30 nations alongside a selection of experts from international anti-torture bodies, including the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) and the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) as well as a handful of academics and representatives from NGOs and other observers.

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Three main themes emerged from the presentations, group work, and discussion:

1. Not good enough

Speakers made it very clear that current standards in many of Europe’s detention centres were not good enough. Key areas of concern that were identified included: strategies of holding women alongside men and/or guarded by men, the treatment of children, and health care. Some centres operated with no medical care at all. In others there was insufficient food. In many personal security could not be guaranteed. Detainees often find it difficult to obtain access to lawyers, their family members or the outside world.

2. Inappropriate 

Much emphasis was given to how immigration detention centres were often modelled on prisons. Prison standards in a number of countries are used to govern and monitor these centres and in some cases detainees are held in prisons using immigration powers. Again the general consensus here was clear, that this shouldn’t be the case. In the words of Latif Huseynov, President of CPT: “Prison is not appropriate for someone who has not been convicted of a crime, by definition.” However, given the poor state of many detention centres some delegates argued that in reality perhaps a well-run prison was preferable for some detainees.  

Detention in itself was deemed inherently inappropriate for immigration purposes, particularly for certain groups. Women and children as well as those individuals who had suffered during dangerous journeys to their host countries, those with a fear of persecution, and those with mental health issues were all singled out.

3. Access 

The issue of access appeared in a number of forms. The most pertinent for detainees was the lack of access to competent legal assistance. The legal rights and pathways for detainees are often complex and hard to decipher, with this problem confounded when detainees are not familiar with the cultures or language of their host country.

From another perspective it was illustrated that access to data and statistics on detention were often difficult to obtain. Michael Flynn from the Global Detention Project described some of the difficulties his organisation faced even when trying to access basic data such as the number of detainees held by each nation, while Border Criminologies' Mary Bosworth mentioned the lack of clarity surrounding the number of women and children in detention in Europe. Both argued for public access to detention data to ensure greater transparency.

By day two there was an emerging consensus supporting a set of standards for immigration detention across Europe. However, there were concerns that these standards should be sufficiently broad to allow for different national contexts. It was felt that standards would enhance the legitimacy of NPM recommendations to governments and help staff on the ground. Importantly it was also hoped they would ensure detainees’ views were heard.

The conference concluded with a persuasive argument from Tineke Strik, Vice Chair of the committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons (PACE), on the importance of developing a comprehensive set of specific immigration detention standards. Following this there was a proposal from HM Inspectorate of Prisons that a declaration be put forward to the parliamentarians of the European council, stating the general consensus of the NPM delegates that work on standards needed to be progressed by the Council of Europe.

Any declaration put forward could take years to become workable standards. Nevertheless, it was clear that everyone in the room felt there was a real need to improve immigration detention conditions across the EU. We can only hope that the confidence derived from knowing there are many others out there working towards the same goal will go some way towards improvements in the short term.

I will leave you with a conclusion (paraphrased) from Edouard Delaplace from the Association for the Prevention of Torture in the UN (APT): Working within the topic of immigration detention is a real challenge, but it is work that is really needed. General monitoring is working on real issues, detention should not exist in an ideal world, but we need to be realistic about making a change. We need to move towards more standards, but not forget that detention should be a last resort.”

For related posts, see Mary Bosworth's discussion of the numbers of women and children in detention in Europe and Michael Flynn's summary of recent work at the Global Detention project.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Gerlach, A. (2013) Developing European Standards of Detention. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/developing-european-standards/ (Accessed [date]).