This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5 of the Declaration proclaims that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Since this line was penned, there have been many initiatives to give effect to the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. One of them, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) came into force in 2006 to establish a dual and complementary system of regular inspections or visits to places of detention by a single international body and one or more national organisations. OPCAT seeks to bolster existing monitoring and supervision mechanisms and requires signatory states to establish a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) within their domestic territory. Yet we know surprisingly little about these organizations, how they operate, the difficulties they face, or their impact.

Since 2016, a small team of researchers based at the University of Oxford, headed by Prof. Mary Bosworth in collaboration with Dr Hindpal Singh Bhui, Inspection Team Leader at Britain’s lead NPM organization, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), and Andriani Fili, a researcher based in Athens, have sought to fill some of the gap in the literature. The first pilot research project, funded by the ESRC-IAA fund, explored conditions in detention and the nature of human rights based monitoring within detention centres in four countries particularly affected by high levels of migration: Greece, Turkey and Italy as sites of first arrival, and Hungary as a place of onward migration. In each country, the research team explored the political and migration policy context, the structure of and conditions in detention, and the way that detention was being used. Most importantly, we sought to understand the structure and history of the NPMs, how they were monitoring immigration detention and what they felt would help to improve the impact and outcomes of their work. You can read the final report here.

The second phase of the project, funded once again by the ESRC through a second impact accelerator account grant is more narrowly focused and seeks to work with policymakers and practitioners in Greece and Turkey to understand the processes and challenges of monitoring human rights, how to overcome them and what resources are needed for effective monitoring practices, through knowledge exchange and capacity building in the Greek and Turkish NPMs. This follow-on project emerged from our findings in the previous research about the formal and legal structures that surround NPMs and into the context in which they operate. It delves deeper into the specifics of the legal systems, while paying attention to the complexities of the geo-political frameworks and intricacies of the socio-cultural context of the two countries. Against this context, members of the Greek and Turkish NPMs have visited the UK to participate in scheduled inspections by HMIP of prisons and immigration detention centres. As part of the UK team, the visiting NPMs have had the opportunity to observe the UK methodology in practice and join in all relevant activities, including groups with detainees and meetings with staff.

Outdoor exercise area in Petrou Ralli pre-removal detention centre in Athens (Photo: Gavriella Morris)

In addition to hosting NPMs, the research team have traveled to Greece and Turkey to observe the monitoring activities of both the Greek and Turkish NPMs. There, we have concentrated on the methodology, structure and implementation of monitoring activities, and offered onsite feedback in formal debriefing sessions.  In September 2018, with the assistance of Ms Gavriella Morris from HMIP, we held a knowledge exchange workshop in Greece to help increase the effectiveness of human rights based detention monitoring through capacity building.

Part of this project is to create briefing papers to bring a range of actors into dialogue to explore the potential for social change and for creating channels of accountability in the detention infrastructure. The first briefing paper outlines the methodology used by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), which inspects places of confinement in the UK, including prisons, police and court custody, and military detention. HMIP has been routinely monitoring immigration detention since 2004 (see Bhui 2017). The second briefing paper maps the work and challenges facing civil society organisations in Greece, which are working with detainees. While a number of organisations monitor conditions in detention, most of their work is small-scale, and little of it is joined up. Organisations often lack secure funding or experienced staff. Under these conditions, their capacity to bring about change is limited. The following briefing papers will explore the methodology of both the Greek and Turkish NPMs and the challenges they face, as well as their opportunities for progress.

At a time when both countries, backed by EU policies, are expanding their detention infrastructure, OPCAT-compliant NPMs promise to improve the rights of detainees through regular inspection and reporting on the conditions in custodial environments. However, their impact remains contingent upon a number of issues, such as resources and technical knowledge. Supported by the project, the recent capacity-building visits between Dr Bhui and others from HMIP, and the relatively new Turkish and Greek NPMs, are helping to support efforts to develop more effective independent monitoring in these countries. Through working collaboratively with NPMs, we are increasing understanding of the nature of immigration detention, the risk of human rights abuses, and of how NPMs can better protect detainees’ human rights.

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