Alternatives to immigration detention in transit migration contexts

In Mexico, just one year after the publication of the General Law on the Rights of Children and Adolescents (2014), IDC promoted a pilot program that saw the release of unaccompanied children and adolescents who were deprived of their liberty in immigration detention centres and their reception and care in community-based civil society programs. In collaboration with the National Migration Institute and the organizations Casa Alianza and Aldeas Infantiles, this experience was pioneering as a strategy to shift perspectives and open possibilities for structural change. It provided evidence to strengthen the advocacy that later, in 2020, enabled legislative reform of the Migration Law to prohibit the detention of children and adolescents for migration-related reasons. This is particularly important considering that Mexico is a country that traditionally receives transit migration.

IDC has found that there is evidence from other countries in the world where they have implemented alternative to detention (ATD) measures aimed at various populations -such as women, families or refugees-, in migration contexts commonly referred to as "transit" or that could be applied in contexts with these characteristics. Regardless of the political category assigned to the migratory context (transit or destination), IDC promotes the adoption of ATD in response to international commitments to move towards ending immigration detention. To this end, IDC acknowledges and promotes the efforts of governments and civil society to build migration governance systems that guarantee dignity and human rights.

"Most critically, immigration detention has detrimental effects on individuals, communities and entire societies."

Why is it important to systematise and share good practices of ATD around the world?

While there has been progress in adopting ATD around the world, immigration detention continues to be a widespread response to international migration, not only in Mexico, but in other countries as well. Disseminating the actions that governments can take in a manner that respects human rights, while strengthening community participation and contributing to transparency and efficiency in the use of public resources, is a task that seeks to inspire stakeholders in charge of protecting the rights of people on the move.

Although there are specific challenges and common questions about the application of ATD in contexts with "transit migration", IDC has worked on research that helps to clarify concepts, myths, arguments and experiences in order to provide useful elements to advance its implementation in these contexts. On the one hand, it allows us to break down some key concepts (such as "transit migration" itself) as well as the factors that encourage the use of immigration detention. In addition, it provides answers to the main questions related to the application of ATDs in contexts with "transit migration" and some considerations on how and when ATDs can be useful as a strategy for those who work in advocacy and design or operation of public policies that prioritise freedom.

To this end, IDC has explored experiences in Australia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Switzerland and Thailand and systematized the most relevant ones.

To learn more:

We invite you to read our publication Alternatives to Immigration Detention in Transit Migration Contexts for more practical examples and recent developments in the field of ATD, in order to highlight promising practices and encourage further progress in this area.

Immigration detention as an exceptional measure of last resort

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the right to personal liberty has been taken up in various international treaties. This right is one of the main frameworks for addressing the arbitrary detention of people on the move.

As part of migration management, governments around the world carry out various actions as part of state policy, one of which is detention.

IDC has documented the various detrimental effects of immigration detention, including the criminalisation of migrants (including those in need of international protection), psychosocial effects on individuals and their communities, human rights violations, as well as high costs to governments.

"Irregular migration is not a choice of the people, but a consequence of the policies and actions of the state.”

Therefore, international standards support the elimination of immigration detention, and one of the strategies to achieve this is to limit its application only as an exceptional measure of last resort. This principle has been taken up in various countries and is enshrined in their legal frameworks; however, there are several challenges in its implementation.

How can the principle of last resort for immigration detention be applied?

In order to ensure that states gradually eliminate and put a complete end to the use of immigration detention, there are some key advocacy actions that can be taken up by legislative actors, public officials or civil society organisations themselves.

Several international instruments prohibit immigration detention for various groups, such as children and adolescents, asylum seekers or people in vulnerable situations, such as pregnant women, nursing mothers, elderly people, people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, or survivors of human trafficking, torture and other serious violent crimes.

In the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, States have committed to prioritise non-custodial alternatives consistent with international law, and to adopt a human rights-based approach to any detention of migrants, where detention is only used as a last resort.

The exceptionality of detention must be based on an individual and context-specific assessment, an analysis of all options, and the decision to opt for detention must be lawful and demonstrate a legitimate aim.

Based on the experiences of its members and partners, IDC set out to compile promising practices in the application of the principle of last resort around the world, including examples of national legislation and its possible effect on the use of detention as an immigration control measure.

Find out more:

We invite you to read our briefing paper – Immigration Detention as an Exceptional Measure of Last Resort – to learn more about the international standards in which the principle of last resort is raised, as well as some promising practices, in order to encourage further progress on this issue.

Civil Society in the Spotlight: Carolina Gottardo, Executive Director of IDC

This interview was first published by the European Programme for Integration and Migration (EPIM)

In this Civil Society Spotlight interview, we hear from Carolina Gottardo, the Executive Director of  International Detention Coalition (IDC). Carolina guides the global network of 275+ organisations, individuals, and community members from around the world to advocate for the human rights of those affected by immigration detention. Through strategic collaboration with civil society, UN agencies, and governments at various levels worldwide, IDC works to build movements and shape legal, policy, and procedural changes aimed at reducing and ultimately ending immigration detention and promoting rights-based alternatives globally.

Carolina is a migrant lawyer and economist with over 20 years of human rights experience specialising in migration, asylum, and gender. Carolina has previously held leadership roles at the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia and Latin American Women’s Rights Service, among others.

EPIM has supported IDC’s work with the European Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Network, which brings together NGOs running case management-based alternatives to detention pilot projects in seven European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Poland, and the UK) with regional-level and international organisations.

1. Can you tell us about IDC’s scope of work and how it has evolved since you started working in the organisation in 2020?

IDC is a global network with members in more than 75 countries that advocates for the rights of migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum, aiming to reduce and ultimately end immigration detention and implement rights-based, non-custodial alternatives to detention.

IDC approaches ATD as a systems change strategy working towards ending immigration detention while building migration governance systems that ensure dignity and human rights for people on the move in the community and out of immigration detention. In partnership with civil society, UN agencies, and multiple levels of government, we strategically build movements, and influence law, policy, and practices, putting the voice of people with lived experience at the centre.

Over the last few years, IDC’s mission has evolved from initially aiming to reduce immigration detention to ending immigration detention. We have also fine-tuned our approach to alternatives to detention as systems change strategy for migration governance systems that do not involve the use of immigration detention.

2. Over the past years leading the European ATD network, can you talk about some of the major wins for the network?

The ATD pilots and initiatives coupled with the advocacy around these at national and regional levels, have resulted in several impactful developments.

These have included: formal government-civil society partnerships established to provide case management based ATD; the development of institutional capacity for ATD in government departments; the establishment of working relationships with government departments and local authorities, the development of evidence-based evaluations on the impact of the ATD pilots, as well as increased awareness and expertise among government institutions, parliamentarians and increased interest and understanding in ATD among local NGOs, academia and the media.

For example, the Association for Legal Intervention (SIP) in Poland signed an MOU with authorities whereby people with specific vulnerabilities who are at risk of detention would be referred to their pilot instead of being put in detention.

In Cyprus, The Cyprus Refugee Council established an unofficial partnership with the national migration department allowing people were released into their ATD pilot. This also later led to the appointment of a dedicated ATD officer.

In Belgium, the Immigration department begun the deployment of Individual Case Management coaches to support undocumented people to resolve their cases in the community with JRS Belgium.

CLA in Bulgaria is working with the national government on ATD programmes and local authorities in Italy, including Rome and Torino, are working closely with CILD, Progetto Diritti and Mosaico on ATD implementation.

3. One of the criticisms we hear about ATD, is that there the political atmosphere currently is not conducive to them – is that true? What then has the work achieved? And is there a future for ATD in Europe?

While the political climate indeed poses challenges for ATD, it is not novel, and the atmosphere has never been straightforward to navigate.

In addition to recent restrictive policies and criminalization trends nationally, the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is likely to lead to a concerning increase in the detention of migrants, including children and families.

Some governments across the political spectrum recognise that immigration detention is not an effective solution to migration management and does little to support case resolution or deter those hoping to make the journey to Europe. There is evident enthusiasm from some states on ATD, which is clear from the rise in promising practices in European countries and the increased visibility of detention and ATD in a number of international fora. There is also a global momentum on ending child immigration detention that needs to be advanced, and potential opportunities for ATD implementation at national levels despite the forthcoming Pact. Peer learning approaches and the exchange of promising practices have also attracted the attention of states, with some such as Portugal, willing to function as ATD “champions” and connect national, regional, and global efforts.
4. What have IDC and the pilot partners learnt about relationship building over these past years? How does this support advocacy for a long-term end to detention?

Relationship building has been an essential component of the pilots’ success and the effective advocacy of the network.

The development of working relationships and informal agreements with relevant national and local authorities have been successes by themselves and have also led to increased awareness, knowledge and understanding of ATD and some authorities have incorporated and implemented the concept at the government level.

Establishing formal agreements with governments has been particularly important when it comes to scaling up case management-based approaches. The resources required to lead to meaningful and long-term change in migration governance systems are far greater than those that can be provided by civil society alone, and partnerships and multi-stakeholder governance on migration are key to addressing this gap.

In addition to the importance of collaborating with authorities, and seeing the more significant impact it can have, we have learnt that through forming partnerships with like-minded organisations, the Network can extend its advocacy efforts and facilitate change on a larger scale. Expanding partnerships beyond migration-oriented civil society organisations and beyond civil society is important, such as collaborating with local authorities. This can lead to dialogue with policymakers and can allow for case management-based approaches to emerge in other contexts.

5. In terms of migration and integration in Europe today, what change do you see that makes you the most hopeful?

It is challenging to be hopeful when witnessing the increased criminalization of migration and the new Asylum and Migration Pact.

That said, recent regularization programmes like the one in Ireland, or the framing of migration and regularisation in Portugal have been a positive development and recent progress on ATD that focuses on solutions, including government-civil society collaboration are interesting.

The response to the situation in Ukraine has been hopeful, clearly illustrating that coordinated responses, not based on criminalization, could work when there is political will. Additionally, the work of local authorities in different cities across Europe that are championing welcome and integration for people on the move, also gives us hope. Another promising area is joining national, regional, and global efforts and increasing peer learning opportunities to share promising practices.

Other interesting developments include the increased momentum on lived experience leadership and the enhanced solidarity of global civil society working on migration in a more intersectional manner.

6. Knowing what you know now, what would you advise practitioners entering the field today?

After over two decades of working on advocacy issues on human rights, migration, and gender and being a very motivated and idealistic person to begin with, these are my takeaways:

You are there for the long haul. Systemic change does not happen overnight and requires time, tactical approaches, and different actors. Systemic change is not linear either.
Do not lose hope. Sometimes advocacy work could be a thankless effort, particularly in such a politicised issue such as migration. However, migrant rights practitioners and advocates have a key role to play.
Social change is a collective effort requiring multiple actors working at various levels and changing tactics according to different contexts. You cannot achieve change by yourself, but you can put in your grain of sand towards social change and rights-based approaches, and your efforts certainly matter.
The work of civil society is crucial for pursuing change through migration-related advocacy. However, limited funding is one of the main challenges that limits civil society efforts and impact. Additional resources for this work are essential and we need to be creative about fundraising.
Focus on solutions and not only problems. This is an effective way of engaging with decision makers and presenting palatable ways to move ahead. I have found it helpful to go beyond criticism, although denouncing and criticism also have an essential role to play.
-Effective advocacy efforts require different tactics, and there is room for insider and outsider advocacy, lobbying, campaigning, strategic litigation, and movement building. The challenges we face with the criminalization of migration are significant, and these approaches complement each other. Every organization can build on their strengths and work closely with others.

7. What have you unlearned since working with IDC?

To think differently about engagement and to leave stereotypes behind.

I have worked with civil society for over two decades in different countries and contexts. The work with IDC has been one of the most impactful I have been involved with because it is focused on solutions-based approaches.

This implies getting out of traditional ways of thinking and stereotypes and working hand in hand with others, including government officials at various levels and other stakeholders.

Governments are complex entities made of distinct levels and different departments. They do not all think the same, so understanding closely how they operate is critical. Often, as part of civil society, we sometimes oversimplify governments. However, many champions within governments could be allies for the change we want to make. Even if the aspirations are different, common ground could be sought. We need to scale up our efforts and increase our impact. Negative or fixed stereotypes do not help us to achieve this.

One of the most important aspects of working with IDC has been exploring diverse ways of working and thinking outside-the-box. Collaborating with the right allies both within and outside of governments could help us to advance our cause, of course always ensuring that there is no risk of co-option, and that the promotion of migrants’ rights is always at the very heart of all our efforts.

Psychosocial Impacts of Immigration Detention

For decades, civil society organisations and human rights defenders have denounced the poor conditions of immigration detention spaces and how they foster human rights violations against people in contexts of mobility in Mexico and the United States.

In recent years, it has been increasingly recognised how important it is to focus conversations on this issue on affected people themselves, especially on the consequences that deprivation of liberty has on their wellbeing and the various ways in which it affects their mental health and relationship with their environment.

For this reason, IDC promoted research on the psychosocial impacts of immigration detention on people who have been detained or who have been at risk of being deprived of their liberty for immigration reasons in Mexico and/or the United States. The objective of these efforts is to make relevant information available to governments in order to advance the design and implementation of programs and/or public policies aimed at mental health care and the promotion of alternatives to detention.

This work considered the documentary review of other related research or reports, in addition to conducting focus groups with people in mobility contexts in Mexico.

What are the psychosocial impacts of immigration detention?

In Mexico and the United States, immigration detention is used as a generalised measure to deprive people of their liberty while their immigration case is being resolved, which in itself has a negative impact. Especially in Mexico, detention is usually made invisible when it is shielded by the use of euphemisms such as presentación ("presentation") or alojamiento ("housing"). This deprivation of liberty is accompanied by other immigration containment measures, such as roadblocks, greater restrictions or requirements for entry, militarised responses and criminalisation, among others.

Research shows that both people who have been detained as well as those who are or were at risk of being detained may face similar impacts. This is because the possibility of being detained by the authorities means that people are forced to take more dangerous routes, are exposed to risky behaviours that facilitate their entry across borders and are more vulnerable to criminal actors.

Psychosocial impacts have two dimensions, one individual and the other community. On an individual level, people may experience fear, anguish, uncertainty and worry, which is expressed in sleeping difficulties, sadness and hopelessness. It is worth mentioning that, even after release, fear persists in the face of the possibility of being detained again.

On the other hand, at the community level, the consequences of detention have an impact on families and communities, both those of origin and those of destination. Anguish and uncertainty are also effects that the families of detained persons may experience, especially when they have limited information about the situation of their family member or little certainty about what is going to happen.

One of the focus groups in action

From the focus groups, we learned of cases in which the effects and damage to mental and emotional health continued after people were released, in addition to the fact that the time factor was not necessarily proportional to the effects – i.e., a person who was in detention for a week can present the same effects as someone who was detained for months.

Finally, our research also showed how damage can occur in adolescents who remain in a shelter or social assistance centre when the models of these spaces do not allow exits (closed-door models), and in effect, the adolescents are deprived of their freedom.

"I did not process what I went through until I got out of there."
"My body could no longer resist, I became anxious."
"I am so afraid of being caught again."
– Phrases from focus group participants.

What role do Alternatives to Detention (ATD) play in counteracting these effects?

Alternatives to detention are synonymous with freedom. According to international treaties on the subject, immigration detention should be exceptional and be used as a measure of last resort, so we call on States to apply alternative measures that guarantee the freedom of people in contexts of mobility.

When people have access to an alternative measure in the community, not only do they avoid the effects of deprivation of liberty, but they are also freed from the human rights violations that usually occur in places of detention. At the same time, the evidence that IDC has through its work with ATD shows that these measures contribute to people's confidence in their administrative and/or legal processes, translate into the follow-up of their actions (i.e., they do not abandon their procedures) and facilitate their integration into the host communities, as they are certain of their options and what they can expect for themselves and their families.

To learn more:

We invite you to read our publication Alternatives to Immigration Detention in Transit Migration Contexts for more practical examples and recent developments in the field of ATDs to highlight promising practices and encourage further progress in this area.