In early November 2019, the Network for African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) will have their 12th Biennial conference on the theme: “The Global Compact on Migration (GCM): African NHRIs common vision, opportunities, and challenges in its implementation”.  

The NHRIs will meet in Cairo (Egypt is the current Chair of the AU) to:

  1. Emphasize at the African level, the unique role of NHRIs in promoting a human rights‐based approach for the implementation of the GCM, as well as their role to contribute in the Follow‐up and Review of the GCM through the International Migration Review Forum to be held in 2020); 
  2. Share and exchange best practices on human rights‐based migration governance among NHRIs and with CSOs.
  3. Sensitize African NHRIs on the African Union Migration Policy and Civil society organizations’ actions to defend migrants’ rights.

The IDC has been involved in the negotiation of the GCM  at the global level. Immigration detention is a major focus. Objective 13 commits States to prioritising alternatives to detention and “working to end the practice of child detention”.  The IDC has been invited to join the biennial conference and will be in attendance to offer technical support to the NHRIs participating.


Alternatives to detention provide a foundation for a solutions-based approach to immigration – with the aim of reducing, and ultimately ending the use of detention in migration governance, especially for children.

The International Detention Coalition (IDC) has identified 3 key trends across Africa that matter for migration governance.                                                                                   

  1. There are alternatives to immigration detention
  2. The political context is shifting towards their expansion 
  3. There are increasing practical developments in their implementation

These trends have emerged from ongoing research that maps Alternatives to immigration detention across the Africa region. The most recent report, There Are Alternatives: Africa (TAA: Africa), was launched in Mauritania, alongside the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)’s 62nd Session, April, 2018. 

Today, the trends continue to develop. This blog post will trace these trends, present updated examples, and explain what the trends mean for you – whether you’re affiliated with an NGO, an NHRI; or are a policy-maker or an international or regional diplomatic official.

Why We Wrote ‘TAA: Africa’

Since IDC became involved in Africa, from the time it was constituted in 2009, NGO members and policy makers requested descriptions of African alternatives to detention. They wanted to showcase their migration management efforts and use these examples to build an empirical evidence base to present to governments what is possible when creative approaches are applied to migration governance, rather than just defaulting to the use of detention.

IDC members gathered information about alternatives to immigration detention operating in their countries. The descriptions assembled in the report show that migration governance using alternatives, rather than detention, is clearly possible and works better both for the government and the individuals involved. Alternatives are more humane and more cost-effective

Key Trend #1: There Are Alternatives

There is an existing array of policies or everyday practices used to support and manage people in the community at all stages of the migration procedure while their claims for status or protection are being processed.

In fact, the majority of countries do not normally detain non-citizens.

We found clear trends in the types of Alternatives available across Africa. Many countries have a strong presumption against detention in law (at least for some groups of migrants). This can be seen in Djibouti’s new Refugee Law that protects refugees from detention. There is a clear trend towards developing and rolling out standardised identification, screening and referral mechanisms, in recognition that migrants are a highly diverse population with different needs and motivations. This includes various National Referral Mechanisms being rolled out in many Southern African countries and the “screening out” of migrants from detention in Tunisia and Libya by NGOs.

There is a movement toward use of case management systems.

Although some are limited, many are going beyond the legal aspect of the case and becoming more holistic. IDC members who engage in case management recognise that some individuals are in need of a high level of support whereas others require barely any support. Not only in each individual country, but there are an increasing number of cross border collaborations between governments in attempts to harmonise case management systems. One example of this is the West African Network – a case management system for migrant children and youth across 16 ECOWAS states, based on harmonised standards.

Placement options are already available in host communities.

Shelter models are especially common – particularly for vulnerable migrants, such as safe houses for people who have been trafficked. There is also a trend towards complete deinstitutionalisation of children into foster care and host family models. A recent example of this is a South African court ruling in 2018 expanding the application of adoption legislation to all children within South Africa’s borders. In Libya, Community Hosting care arrangement pilots are being run as pilot programmes by civil society groups, on behalf of UNHCR and by the IOM, with the knowledge of the government. 

Key Trend #2: The Political Context is Shifting

There are increasing state commitments in national, regional, international laws and regulations to develop and implement Alternatives.

It is clear, there is growing momentum around using Alternatives as a strategy for reducing immigration detention.

On a national level, we have seen states move forward to develop and implement Alternatives. This is manifest in the creation of Working Groups specifically on this issue, for example, in Libya, or in the form of government and civil society Roundtables, for example, in Malawi. Some technical working groups (TWG) and the Alternatives they have been able to establish have been visited by delegations from neighbouring countries. Most notably we are seeing this happen in Zambia where a sharing of good practice on Alternatives is evident through study visits across borders.

On a regional level, there are regional processes working towards Alternatives both directly and indirectly. Through the Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa (MIDSA) dialogue, Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states are directly pursuing Alternatives by committing to “develop and implement Alternatives”. They are required to implement Regional and National Action Plans and report back on progress annually as they expand alternatives to detention.

The trend towards Alternatives is reflected in working towards a stronger presumption of liberty by facilitating lawful migration within regional blocks.

These include the Southern African Development Community (SADC); Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), to name a few.

On an international level, the benefits of alternatives to detention, as opposed to the human and financial costs of detention, are well documented. Hence, they are emphasised in the two draft Global Compacts (the one on Refugees; and one on Safe and Orderly Migration) and in UNCHR’s Beyond Detention strategy – which has expanded its focus countries in this region to include: Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Key Trend #3: Practical Developments

Alternatives are being piloted and the results are good for both migrants and host communities through migrant’s economic and cultural contributions.

More and more, we are seeing that States are recognising the benefits of regularising non-nationals within their territories, thus reducing the population of people at risk of detention, by pursuing Alternatives.

There is a wealth of evidence that promoting refugees and migrant’s ability to reside safely in a country on a temporary basis and providing them with the right to work firstly, reduces refugee and migrant reliance on state or charitable resources – as migrants can earn money to provide for their own basic needs. And secondly, giving migrants the right to work in a host country boosts the local economy by providing customers to local businesses and even, sometimes, an increase in jobs for locals.

We are seeing this recognition manifest in various ways. Firstly, through the aforementioned expansion of regular migration pathways within sub-regions. There is a pilot currently underway on the Zimbabwe Zambia border on labour rights under the COMESA. Secondly, through the removal of reservations to International Human Rights Instruments. Zambia is removing reservations to the Refugee Convention to permit the rights to work and freedom of movement, therefore allowing access to employment. Finally, States have administered blanket “amnestiesfor undocumented workers. For example, plans were announced in Algeria in 2017 and 18,000 one-year residency permits were granted to irregular migrants in Morocco in 2013.

In addition, there is a trend to use migration funding to further advance host community infrastructure and systems, rather than developing wasteful parallel systems for migrants which also create isolation and xenophobia.

We have seen this mainly in health and education systems. For example, in 2019, the government of Uganda unveiled a five year health sector response plan for refugees and host communities, targeting at least eight million people in refugee hosting districts. Also, see our example of the health clinic at the Action Africa Help Zambia Transit centre in Lusaka in the report (p.13).  

This point also highlights the trend in migration governance to recognise this need for social cohesion and provide for the additional strain on host communities. In new settlements in Uganda, about 30% of the resources of humanitarian response will go towards improving local infrastructure. 

What These Trends Mean For You?

In light of the three trends from that emerged from research for the report, there are a number of key takeaways for stakeholders’ keen to build systems that do not use immigration detention.

If you are a policy maker, this means that there are a range of case studies to use to inspire implementation of Alternatives in your national context with shared benefits for migrants and citizens. Of course, there is no model or one size fits all Alternative, but you can take any elements that might work if adapted in your national context.

If you are an NHRI or an NGO, you can get alongside policy makers who might like to explore Alternatives to respect human rights, reduce cost and increase effectiveness of migration governance in your country, and maybe even support them to run a pilot.  Or, you could lead the way by establishing a pilot for vulnerable refugees and migrants in your own communities. The things you learn by doing so would also contribute examples of good practice for future policy.

If you are an international or regional diplomatic official, we hope that you can use the case studies to break policy deadlocks. In bilateral meetings, you can identify avenues to protect your own citizens from immigration detention in other states; in multilateral meetings, you can identify or expand opportunities for shared regional approaches; in international meetings, you can use examples of Alternatives to support arguments for particular commitments in inter-governmental agreements (such as the Global Compacts) as well as showcase good practice in your domestic and regional laws, policies and practices.

You may also have many case studies of these kinds of systems that avoid use of detention that are not in the report – if so, please be in contact with Tiffany Shakespeare ([email protected])  so we can include your great practice in the next round of research.

In sum, the research for the report has demonstrated the widespread use of Alternatives in the Africa region, the growing momentum around the development of Alternatives globally, and the increasing practical developments taking place that yield benefits for governments, migrants, and host communities. There are organisations such as ours, the International Detention Coalition (IDC), who can provide technical expertise in the development and/or expansion of Alternatives and advise on how to use alternatives to immigration detention as a strategy for reducing unnecessary, inhumane and costly immigration detention.

For more information, read the report which is available to download: There Are Alternatives: Africa

Please also read and download the Guide for Policy Makers, available in English and French.