Argument: If we make the detention of migrants more humane, does this increase detention?

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If we make the detention of migrants more humane, does this increase detention?

Michael Flynn (academic) and Michelle Brané (advocate) argue.

Michael – YES


Dr. Michael Flynn started the Global Detention Project at the Graduate Institute’s Global Migration Centre. This follows the growth of detention centres worldwide. He has recently written: ‘The Hidden Costs of Human Rights: The Case of Immigration Detention’ (September 2013) and ‘On the Unintended Consequences of Human Rights Promotion on Immigration Detention’, (March 2012).

In the last 30 years, European countries have increased the size of their immigration detention centres, in some countries by a great amount. Detention centres have developed in a similar way in all of Europe: most countries have slowly stopped using prisons and have started using detention centres only for migrants.

It is worrying to think that the increase in migrants in detention centres relates to more humane detention. This shows that fighting for the rights of migrants might have many different results.

For example, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has had an effect on state behaviour. The CPT has said since the 1990s that it is bad for countries to put vulnerable migrants with criminals in prisons. And it has often told countries they must have detention centres only for migrants. Many countries have done this.

But journalist Deepa Fernandes once wrote that when there are more prison beds, there is more pressure to fill them with more immigrants.

Of course, this is not enough evidence that fighting for human rights makes detention centres worse. There are many other things, such as domestic politics, changes in migration patterns and economics.

But I argue that when we make countries create specialized organisations and places to detain migrants, this has helped encourage increases in detention in some countries (without intending to). And it makes detention more powerful.

Does this mean we should stop fighting for better detention conditions? Of course not. But there seems to be a problem between fighting to make the treatment better and fighting to end detention completely.

Michelle - NO


Michelle Brané is the Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice programme at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) . She leads the organization’s work on detention reform and parental rights. Michelle wrote WRC’s 2007 report on family detention, Locking Up Family Values, and the 2009 report on unaccompanied migrant children, Halfway Home.

Many thousands of migrants are in very bad conditions in detention centres around the world. We must fight for humane conditions in detention: it is a very important step - first we make detention more humane and then we end it.

Fighting for humane treatment of migrants and fighting to end detention are not different fights. They are related, because if we improve detention conditions, this is a direct step toward ending detention.

It is unrealistic to believe that governments will, one day, suddenly decide to end all detention. We must work toward ending detention. To do this, we must first change the culture of detention. If we make governments and detention centers treat migrants like humans, who deserve humane conditions, we change the way they see migrants. If we change the way they see migrants, we move toward a future with no migrant detention.

You and I agree that we must always think about other possible results. But I see no evidence that making detention conditions better is the cause of having more migrants in detention. In the US, for example, I see evidence of the opposite.

In some areas, there was a decrease in the number of migrants detained in jails and, at the same time, an increase in overall detention. But this does not mean that one caused the other. The opposite happened: the years when US immigrant detention expanded the most were when the detention conditions became worse and there was more use of prison-like facilities. Also, when there were great improvements to family detention, this was followed by an 80 percent reduction in family detention.

In the long fight to end the detention of migrants, we must first see migrants as humans. They need the same rights and humane treatment as citizens.

Michael - YES

I agree with several things you say. We must put pressure on authorities to make sure that people in detention centres are not treated badly; it is impossible to imagine that governments will suddenly stop detaining migrants; and fighting for change and stopping detention completely should work for the same purpose.

But it is sad that the different sides of campaigning often do not agree. In many countries that the Global Detention Project has studied, we find that NGOs working with migrants in detention centres do not agree with groups working to end detention. In some cases, these arguments have led to lawsuits. This fighting between groups is not helpful and comes from my arguments above.

We cannot say there is ‘no evidence’ of a connection between increasing detention and fighting for rights. And we cannot say there is definite evidence of a connection.

You talk about the United States. Your excellent 2007 report Locking Up Family Values shows that Congress created family detention after the pressure about ‘family values’. On the other hand – as you said – people fighting against this later caused a decrease in this form of detention, but it was not ended completely.

In France, they built some of the largest migrant detention centres in Europe after public pressure to improve the conditions of the small number of people France detained before. And last year Cyprus opened its first detention centre only for migrants after years of fighting by the European Union and rights groups to improve the treatment of migrant detainees. The new centre has space for twice as many migrants in detention.

Maybe you are right, that fighting for better conditions sometimes decreases the number of migrants in detention. But, sadly, I think the long term effect will be to make detention more normal. This is shown by the UNHCR saying that the US Berks family detention centre should be a ‘model’ for others to follow.

Michelle - NO

Your examples of France and Cyprus show the creation of an immigration system at the same time as expansion of detention. But improving conditions is not the same as developing a new system of administration, and the first doesn’t always cause the second. Maybe they already had plans to expand detention. And the expansion might have happened even if no-one had been fighting for better conditions.

In other countries in Europe, we have seen better conditions linked to a decrease in detention. Belgium, for example, tested a new form of detention for families after pressure to improve conditions. The programme showed the authorities that formal detention is not always necessary. Belgium has expanded this programme, and they are also fighting for similar changes in other countries.

It is always possible that there are other consequences. We must try to stop these. But the problem affects both sides: when people fighting for migrants in the US tried to stop the new migrant-only facilities, the government expanded the detention in prisons.

And even when there are different ways of dealing with migrants – not detention – this can mean more restrictions on migrants (but not reducing traditional detention) - as you say in the January edition of New Internationalist.

The increase in family detention, which you talk about (and I agree that there are problems with this) was after people were fighting to end detention, and not to improve conditions. This is exactly why I am fighting for alternative forms of detention – with improved conditions – as an important step in some situations.

The basic problem is that governments increase detention because they are comfortable with it and they see no alternatives. We must show them that other ways are possible and slowly stop them believing in detention. It is not enough to demand a sudden end to detention.

Finally, I agree with you that fighting between different NGO groups is not helpful and fighting for improved conditions is not always the right plan. But the solution is to bring both together: fighting for improved conditions can be the preparation for the end to detention.

Michael - YES

Cyprus has had an immigration detention system for many years. I do not think it was created after people started fighting for rights. Europe has told Cyprus to improve its places of detention. And opening this new facility was a way to get some EU money.

In France, most people believe that fighting for the rights of migrants in detention centres was very important in France’s decision to develop the system of centres de rétention (see the Cimade website for more information). Society said that people in detention centres must have more humane treatment. And this has led to a large system of detention centres. It seems that detention will not end there.

But these are just two cases in a world where most countries keep migrants in detention. There are many different forces leading to increases in detention. So I would never argue that fighting for rights is the most important reason for increases. But it would be wrong to not see how it has helped increase it a bit in some cases, even though this was not the intention.

This is not just an intellectual exercise. We agree that countries will probably not end immigration detention soon, (from the history of the past 20-30 years), but people fighting for rights should think about planning what they do.

This may seem too idealistic, but think about this: What would detention be like in Europe today if the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture had fought for detention only as a last resort, instead of fighting mostly to improve detention centres? It is hard to answer this question, but I guess that in some countries at least detention would not have become as important as it is today.

Michelle - NO

You and I agree that it would be stupid and irresponsible to pay no attention to the possible negative effects of advocacy (fighting for rights). But it would be just as stupid and irresponsible stop fighting for humane treatment of migrants because we are afraid. We must see these other consequences, understand them, and use them to help us fight better, not to stop fighting.

I understand that you are not saying that we should take no action to improve conditions. But sadly, many people think we should do nothing when they have no solutions to something like this. We also agree that governments sometimes use alternatives to hide what they are really doing; and that alternatives do not always decrease detention. Improved conditions, alternatives, or non-detention that does not help with going to court or finding a solution to the case: all of these usually cause more detention.

That is why it is not enough to fight to end detention alone, or to fight for better conditions alone. We need to think about what the governments are worried about, and provide alternatives that work. And where they don’t work, we need to look for ways to help them work. This is not easy, because, as you said, the detention of immigrants is basically political. The detention of migrants will not end until we change the policies of migration and change what people think of migration. I believe this might happen when we humanize them.

You and I agree more than we disagree. Productive discussions are helpful and important. In some cases, fighting for better conditions might cause stricter detention, but it doesn’t have to. All action can have negative consequences.

As you said, this is not just an intellectual argument. Thousands of migrants are detained every day. And so I cannot do nothing and watch them suffer. It is not enough only to demand improvements, or only to demand an end to detention. There are possible plans to work on both of these, and, at the same time, remember the negative consequences. This is what we must do.

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