Unlocking Immigration Detention Reflection

This blog piece by Jem Stevens, IDC Europe Regional Coordinator, was first published in December 2016 on the #Unlocked16 Reflection Special in the UK. To mark the end of 2016’s Unlocking Detention tour, this “asked a selection of activists, legal commentators, politicians, journalists and experts-by-experience – all engaged in the fight against detention in the UK and across Europe – their answers to the following question: What gave you hope in the fight against detention in 2016, and how are you planning to use that hope in 2017?”

Looking back at 2016, I can’t help but feel apprehensive about the future in terms of detention in Europe. This year we’ve continued to see the emergence of a regional approach to migration governance which focuses on containment, enforcement and return, and means more detention. The EU Commission had made proposals for legal reform that would, if adopted, codify this approach in a (probably largely ineffective and in some ways counterproductive) bid to limit migration into, and secondary movement within, the EU.

But, as we reach the end of the year, I am optimistic.

I’m optimistic because I believe there are alternatives; there are other approaches to governing migration that don’t rely on enforcement and detention, and work better for both states and migrants.

The IDC’s programme of research over the past five years provides clear evidence that programmes that build trust with and support migrants in the community achieve high rates compliance and case resolution, better ensure the rights and wellbeing of migrants, and are far cheaper than detention. These often use screening and assessment and case management to ensure migrants are informed, can meet basic needs and explore all possible options in terms of their immigration case.

In Europe, discussions on alternatives to detention have tended to narrowly focus on typologies of restrictions and conditions placed on individuals to ensure compliance. Practice has mainly been of these (lesser) control mechanisms running in parallel to detention within enforcement-based systems of migration governance.

But the alternatives that we are interested in are those that show a different way of doing things: moving away from enforcement to engaging with migrants and challenging assumptions about the need to detain at all.

These aren’t simple solutions. Effective alternatives to detention need to be designed to fit each unique context and address their specific challenges. But it’s worth noting that alternatives have been shown to work in the most “challenging” migration contexts and with the most complex cases.

As we move into 2017, I’m doubly optimistic because I can see some seeds of change being sown. The big gap and challenge in Europe has been to move from theory to practice. But this year we’ve seen growing interest within our network in developing and implementing the kind of alternatives that the IDC’s research shows work.

Civil society are well-placed to run such pilot projects, because of the trust they can build with migrants which is essential for success. Drawing on experiences from other regions, pilot projects can show governments that their policy goals can be better achieved without detention, leading to policy change as they are rolled out as main stream responses.

Next year, the IDC will focus on fostering a network of groups implementing alternative to detention pilot projects in Europe. The aim, as set out in IDC member Detention Action’s report Without Detention, is to build momentum and evidence that this engagement-based approach works.

Our goal is that as evidence grows, more governments will choose to support people towards case resolution in the community instead of using detention, and ultimately detention will become truly the exception and engagement the norm.