Detention centre, Malta

Asylum seekers being brought to a detention centre (Malta Today)
Putting human rights first

The right of states to manage migration flows is subject to their obligations to protect refugees. In fact, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention prohibits states from penalising refugees simply for seeking asylum. Nevertheless arbitrary immigration detention is widely used as a migration control tool. Policies that restrict the movement of refugees carry with them immense human and social costs.

When Montagnard children fled persecution in Vietnam, they were detained in Cambodia. The nature and structure of the closed centres seriously curtails the provision of education services. This confinement hinders the organisation of the range of education services available and the monotony of everyday life de-motivates students.

Detention also compromises the provision of legal services. Lawyers in Malta try nonetheless to ensure asylum seekers receive quality legal assistance. Detention by its very nature removes asylum seekers from mainstream society and makes it more difficult for them to access legal assistance or information on asylum procedures. Asylum seekers in Malta are expected to go through the procedures without access to information on what is expected from them.

Although often not as repressive as detention centres, indefinite confinement in closed camps can seriously impact refugees’ mental health. This is clearly evident in the development of anti-social behaviour by young refugees in camps. Full awareness of the opportunities offered to those outside the camps engenders a sense of apathy and hopelessness in the young. Even though refugees in camps receive guarantees of food, housing and education, it is often seen as a road to nowhere. Steps are being taken by JRS to deal with the consequences of their confinement but unfortunately the causes are decided elsewhere.

Yet successful action has been taken. In South Africa, the injustice of detaining separated children has been challenged and the courts have ordered authorities always to respect the ‘best interests of the child’ when making decisions affecting them. Despite the pressure of large numbers of spontaneous arrivals, South Africa has stood up in defence of children’s rights. Children are to be provided with appropriate care, not put in prisons for fleeing poverty and persecution.

In Australia, not able to depend on the law, human rights advocates have taken it upon themselves to raise public awareness of the critical situation faced by asylum-seeking children held in detention for years. Presenting the human face of the costs of detention, NGOs have grabbed the attention of the public and eventually forced a change in government policy. Children are no longer detained on immigration grounds.

While the international community has an obligation to share equitably responsibility for refugee protection, detention should never be arbitrarily used as a migration control mechanism. God created us free. Alternatives to detention are nearly always available to respect this freedom; it is up to states to put human rights before narrow definitions of border security.


Countries Related to this Region
Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America