In April 2022, members of the European ATD Network met for the first time since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Five years after the Network’s creation, its goal – to reduce and end immigration detention by building evidence and momentum on engagement-based alternatives – is more relevant now than ever before. Hannah Cooper, IDC’s Europe Regional Coordinator, reflects on some of the key takeaways from the meeting.

Recent years have shown increased momentum around alternatives to detention (ATD) in Europe, with a number of countries introducing legislative changes that have codified – and, in some cases, expanded – their use. Promising practice has taken the form of improved screening and assessment procedures, enhanced safeguards for people in vulnerable situations, introduction of legislation and policy that prohibits detention of certain groups, and the piloting of innovative ATD approaches (see IDC’s latest report released in May, Gaining Ground, for more promising practice in Europe and beyond).

Yet despite some steps forward, the need for effective, rights-based ATD remains great. Detention continues to be a key part of Europe’s toolbox when it comes to migration management and the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is likely to result in increased use of detention – including arbitrary detention – due to its focus on border procedures and the push to increase and accelerate returns. While EU law states that detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and in very specific circumstances defined by law, detention is frequently applied as a default. Even where alternatives are used they tend to focus on enforcement-based approaches, which apply restrictions and conditions to control and track migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum. Such measures allow governments to monitor individuals and apply sanctions for non-compliance, but fail to support people in working towards resolution of their case. The conditions of such enforcement-based ATD are often unrealistic and put overly harsh burdens on migrants regarding reporting and bail conditions. In contrast, ATD based on engagement and case management in the community are more humane, collaborative, and effective in supporting people to work towards finding a temporary or permanent migration outcome, which can include regularisation, moving to a third country, or voluntary return.

It was with this in mind that the European Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Network came together in late April for our tenth meeting. Due to the pandemic, this was the first time that network members had met in person in over two years. The meeting’s overall purpose was therefore to provide network members from across Europe with the opportunity to gather after this long hiatus, review our progress to date, develop a joint understanding of the current context, exchange on priority areas and challenges, and develop a collective roadmap for the coming phase.

Working together to implement and advocate for rights-based ATD

Since 2017, the European Alternatives to Detention Network has been working to bring together organisations implementing case management-based ATD across Europe. The Network has grown from its initial four pilot projects, and now includes eight organisations in seven countries across Europe. Five years on, the goal of the Network – to reduce and end immigration detention by building evidence and momentum on engagement-based alternatives – is more relevant than ever.

The meeting in April provided Network members with a space to reflect, troubleshoot, and problem solve together. Our approach is constantly evolving – there are always new things to learn, and ways in which we can improve our delivery of rights-based ATD, based on the principles of holistic case management in the community. Given this, below are some reflections on the key takeaways from the meeting:

Learning together is key to growing together.

When the Network was formed in 2017, there were very few examples of case management based ATD happening. Detention Action’s Community Support Project (CSP), which works with young migrant ex-offenders who have experienced or are at risk of long-term immigration detention, was used as inspiration for other members, who initially had little experience in case management. The CSP was designed in line with the principles of IDC’s Community Assessment and Placement model, a holistic framework for case management that is drawn from social work principles. Today, through learning and working together, Network members are leading best practices on the provision of holistic case management, including when it comes to ATD.

Change happens, but slowly.

One of the network’s key priorities since its inception has been to influence ATD policy and practice across Europe. Network members are in a particularly strategic position to do this; their pilots work with groups experiencing some of the most severe vulnerabilities, and their ability to speak with policymakers from this on-the-ground perspective – combined with a solutions-focused approach – is one of the network’s unique  strengths. Thanks in part to the advocacy of Network members, we have seen concrete impact – including the establishment of a specific role focusing on ATD and the adoption of the Screening and Vulnerability tools in Cyprus, and a partnership set up between the UK Home Office and non-governmental actors to test ATD approaches. However, change is slow and rarely linear. The Network is also only one part of a large ecosystem of change; as one participant put it, “we need to stop thinking we can change the world alone.”

Our work must always centre around lived experience leadership.

One of the central themes of this year’s Network meeting was how to ensure meaningful and responsible participation of leaders with lived experience of detention – not just as ‘users’ of services but also in leading the co-design and implementation of our pilots and projects. For all Network members, this is a current priority – and we discussed how resources can be put in place to ensure that leaders with lived experience are equal partners in the development of rights-based ATD, and can be supported to participate. The newest Network member, Mosaico, was established with this commitment in mind and their refugee-led approach has meant that migrants and refugees  involved in the project are themselves active participants in its design and conception. Moving forward, the Network will be looking to further explore how we can promote lived experience leadership, in line with our two-year scaling plan.

We can see the impact of our projects, but we must do better at showing it to others.

Every day, Network members see the impact of their work. Whether this be ensuring that somebody is released from detention into a community-based pilot, or helping them to access the legal assistance that they were not able to obtain in detention – our projects have a concrete and visible positive impact on the lives of those at risk of immigration detention. We know, moreover, that ATD are better for people’s health and more cost effective than immigration detention, as well as being a far more effective and dignified way to support people to work towards resolution of their migration cases. And the evaluations from our projects (see here and here) present some of the strongest evidence for the success of ATD – with implications not just in Europe, but also for developing and enhancing ATD globally. Yet Network members agree that we must do better at showing the success of our projects as a whole, particularly to governments and policymakers but also to civil society allies, in order to provide concrete evidence that demonstrates the impact of effective, rights-based ATD.

Going forward, the Network will continue to evolve and adjust our approach in order to learn and grow together – finding ways to effect change, show impact, and shift power to those with lived experience. And by doing this, we hope that we will bring the Network one step closer to achieving our goal to reduce and ultimately end detention in Europe, allowing people on the move to live with freedom, rights, and dignity.