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The Immigration Detention Puzzle

People stand outside a building
Migrants stand in front of an immigration detention center in Bělá pod Bezdězem, Czech Republic, on November 5, 2015. © Matej Divizna/Getty

Between 2013 and 2015, the Global Detention Project (GDP) and its partner Access Info Europe sent brief questionnaires to more than 30 countries in the European region, as well as the United States and Canada. The questions, submitted under each country’s freedom of information legislation, asked for basic information about immigration-related detentions: where people are detained, how many, and whether children and asylum seekers are among them.

The results, as detailed in the report The Uncounted: The Detention of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Europe, were revealing—in part for what the countries failed to reveal at all. Nineteen of the thirty-three countries—more than half—did not indicate where people are detained for immigration reasons; 17 did not provide any information about the detention of asylum seekers; and 19 failed to fully answer questions about the detention of children.

This lack of transparency was the impetus behind the initiative in the first place. While some countries in Europe have publicly available documentation about their immigration detention systems, most have little or none. Further, while the EU statistical agency Eurostat provides a wealth of data on some region-wide immigration indicators, it has none on the critically important issue of detention.

This dearth of available information presents important challenges to fully assessing the treatment of foreigners, complicates calls for reforms, and raises questions about government transparency. These issues are all the more compelling now, as Europe’s response to the burgeoning refugee crisis grows more restrictive and heated by the day.

Many countries simply never responded to our repeated questionnaires. Others provided incomplete information. And still others responded to say they would not answer.

Bulgarian officials refused to answer our questions because they said they had already provided the information to Eurostat, a claim Eurostat denied. Malta insisted that we needed to submit a photocopy of a passport to get the requested data. And Germany said its federal agencies did not have information on the issue because it was managed at the local level.

We should be shocked that so many countries fail to provide even basic details about their immigration detention practices. And yet, for those who have worked on this issue over the last two decades, the absence of public accountability about detention comes as no surprise.

Civil society actors from the United States to Greece to Australia have repeatedly pointed to the missing accountability mechanisms in immigration detention regimes. They highlight both the dearth of available information about many detaining practices, and the fact that because immigration detainees are generally not charged with crimes, their “administrative” detention doesn’t guarantee them the right to due process.

On the other hand, the lack of transparency presents an intriguing puzzle. At the same time that many countries are attempting to deter migrants and asylum seekers from entering, they often go to great lengths to shield or disguise their detention practices. Governments call immigration detention anything but detention, carefully delimit what practices they define as detention, and fail to provide comprehensive information on these activities.

The origins of the Global Detention Project are rooted in this puzzle. Originally a student-led research project based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, in 2014 the GDP was relaunched as an independent association.

The results of the joint GDP–Access Info study support a supposition that has driven the GDP’s work since its earliest days: that countries attempt to disguise their immigration detention practices because they run counter to norms that are at the heart of modern liberal democracies, in particular the right to liberty. As a result, not only is there often little clarity about national detention regimes, but debates about the issue easily become deeply politicized, with considerable misinformation and competing claims and definitions.

When the GDP became an independent research center, one of the key objectives it enshrined in its statutes was improving transparency of the treatment of noncitizens in official custody. States’ simultaneous embrace and disavowal of immigration detention point to an apparent insecurity in their use of this tool for immigration control. In such a situation, knowledge itself can be powerful when it brings public attention to activities that officials would prefer not to discuss.

Thus, the GDP has emphasized employing rigorously developed measures that are not politically shaped to construct data on detention regimes. Such data can serve to cut through uncertainty and ensure that advocacy campaigns have clearly defined baselines and well-researched targets. 

With assistance from the Open Society Foundations, the GDP launched a new website earlier this year that provides structured access to data and indicators on nearly 100 countries and some 2,000 detention centers across the globe. One partner in the advocacy community told the GDP these resources on detention practices are an “essential base for advocacy” because effectively promoting reforms requires having accurate information about state practices and being able to identify critical gaps in protections.

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