Rights advocates working on immigration detention have in recent years focused considerable energy on lobbying states to adopt so-called alternatives to detention—or non-custodial measures—when dealing with asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants. To its credit, this global campaign, which has been spearheaded by numerous nongovernmental groups like Jesuit Refugees Service Europe (JRS) and the International Detention Coalition (IDC), has had enormous success in mobilizing key actors working at both the national and international levels. Numerous states from Europe to the Americas to Asia have begun adopting such measures, and UN bodies like the High Commissioner of Refugees and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants have made the language of alternatives a cornerstone of their advocacy.
Nevertheless, while the campaign has made a clear impact on discourse and led to some notable on-the-ground results (like in Belgium), it has fallen far short of a key goal—limiting the number of “unnecessary detentions” (presumably there are “necessary detentions,” though who precisely falls into that category remains unclear). Thus, for instance, in a 2011 study on the impact of non-custodial measures in several EU countries, JRS-Europe reported that the UK Border Agency’s “capacity to detain is not diminished by the existence of these measures. In fact, the detention estate has expanded, and the number of spaces available to detain migrants continues to increase.”
When applied to “transit states” where major receiving countries like the United States, Australia, and EU states have placed enormous pressure to get authorities to block the flow of migrants the alternatives campaign appears even more intractable. The simple and obvious fact is that a large percentage of the unauthorized migrants in these countries have no intention of staying put. So what is the compelling argument for authorities to consider adopting alternatives, except perhaps in a few narrow cases like those of children? In a 2013 report on alternatives in Mexico, the IDC recommended that the country should revoke mandatory detention policies and apply alternatives in the first instance for people “who should not be detained.” Among those falling into this category, according to the report's recommendations, are children, victims of crimes, “other vulnerable groups,” and people who present themselves to authorities. However, the report provided little advice on the issue of absconders or potential absconders, who undoubtedly make up the vast majority of people in detention in Mexico.
These challenges underscore an important weakness in the alternatives campaign: While the use of such measures has undoubtedly benefitted some individuals and families, the overall impact seems for the most part to have been to provide authorities with new tools to keep larger numbers of people under surveillance. Officials can also point to these alternatives as a sign of their progressive immigration control measures, even as they persist in detaining larger numbers of people.
Alternatives are in need of evidence and indicators. If, as is arguably the case, most detentions are disproportionate to the limited aims of immigration policy, then the most important indicator of success should be an observable decline in the numbers of people being detained in states that have implemented alternatives. However, to achieve this end, advocates must insist that these measures always be linked to the adoption of non-detention policies for entire categories of people, as in the case of Belgium, where the adoption of housing measures for families was linked to a policy of non-detention in the first instance. Absent such linkage, alternatives are arguably not alternatives at all.
A version of this article will appear in the January-February 2014 special edition of the New Internationalist focusing on immigration detention.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Flynn M (2013) Whither “Alternatives to Detention”?. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/alternatives/ (Accessed [date]).