Interview to the IDC Americas team

Interview with Diana Martínez, IDC Americas Program Officer on the current conditions of migration in the region


How are you, through IDC, confronting the increased security on the borders and the rise in immigration detention in the region, and what elements most concern you?

Governments in the region have a series of international human rights commitments that they have acquired through the years. We try to push them to fulfill these commitments, particularly the right to freedom, in accordance with the international standards that the authorities themselves have imposed, Governments should not forget the protection they should guarantee to vulnerable groups by not placing them in detention, both children and adolescents as well as refugees and other vulnerable groups.


idc americas


 How has the perception of the region changed in the light of the new situation?

Without a doubt there has been an important shift in the situation over the past months. Countries like Mexico had been making progress in issues around protection and alternatives to detention after years of not knowing what alternatives to detention meant. The Mexican government had been gradually including this within its agenda and discourse, and even began some pilot projects of alternatives for children, adolescents and refugees. For months, Mexico was considered a reference for good practice on an international level.

As IDC, we saw this as a step towards what we envisage, that all detention for migrants will be done in accordance with the principles of exceptionality, proportionality and necessity. In other words, that immigration detention will be used only in exceptional circumstances and never for vulnerable groups.

Unfortunately, following the agreements with the United States, this progress has reached an impasse, and we are seeing that immigration detention has once again become one of the main tools of migration control, and that much more control is being exerted on the border and along the migration route. This is not only in Mexico, the Central American countries are doing something similar, trying to close the borders to prevent people from leaving. With this, governments are forgetting that people have the right to seek a better life and request asylum if they are being persecuted or if their lives are in danger.


Governments are forgetting that people have the right to seek a better life and request asylum if they are being persecuted or if their lives are in danger


How many detention centers are there currently in Mexico and what kind of centers are they?

There are currently approximately 60 formal detention centers spread throughout Mexico. There are various categories of detention, the most well-known is the migrant detention center (estación migratoria), but there are also temporary holding centers (estancias provisionales), type A and B*, that are different to the previous ones in that they receive people for short periods of time. On the other hand, we have centers that have been set up in the wake of the agreements with the United States in June of this year. These are 8 temporary (or informal) shelters (albergues temporales) that have greater capacity than the detention centers and are strategically located in some states along the migration route. These centers have increased the capacity of the Mexican government to detain people.

This concerns us because firstly, evidently, the detention conditions are not optimal and second, it is not clear whether international organizations and civil society are able to enter these centers nor whether the detained people are receiving information about their migration procedures, or about the possibilities for legalization and of the importance of having access to asylum procedures. On the other hand, not knowing when these temporary shelters will be closed is also a worry.


 What are the latest figures for immigration detention?

 In statistics provided by the government’s Migration Policy Unit, between January and August of this year, 144,591 immigration detentions have been carried out in Mexico, with 43,027 of those being children



What is IDC actively working on in the face of the increase in migrant detentions in the region?

IDC is betting on local efforts, especially in Mexico and the United States. We argue that local responses can bring about global change. We are driving the coordination between diverse stakeholders, and supporting the strengthening of protection and migration authorities as well as civil society organizations, in order to move forward in the implementation of alternatives to detention, mainly that of children and adolescents, but also that of their families.

The issue of accompanied children and adolescents has us particularly concerned and we worry that they are overlooked because they are with a family member. The government is making some effort to relatively quickly free children and adolescents who travel unaccompanied (although the ideal would be that they do not spend even a day in detention), while accompanied children are left in detention centers for indefinite periods with the excuse that they are with family. Detention continues to be detrimental to these children and adolescents. We are collaborating with our members and allies, as well as with authorities (through alliances, events and trainings) to ensure that alternatives are implemented as part of a protection protocol for migrant children and that the existing provisions in Mexican law -  that no child under the age of 18 should be detained for migration reasons - becomes a reality.


IDC is betting on local efforts, especially in Mexico and the United States. We argue that local responses can bring about global change.


What opportunities do governments in the region have?

 They have a great opportunity to fulfill the commitments they have undertaken; to respect the human rights of the population that inhabits their territory, to monitor international standards, and above all, to enable the protection of children in situations of human mobility. They could even elevate standards and reverse the securitization that is occurring again in the region and that is affecting the most vulnerable who do not have access to travel documents to reach Mexico or the United States.

 It is in governments’ hands to change the situation of the most unprotected of these vulnerable groups who leave their countries in order to safeguard their lives and their freedom and who are experiencing the impossibility of accessing migration procedures, international protection or who are being detained for long periods in detention centers both in Mexico and the United States.



*In accordance with the National Migration Institute´s Detention Center Regulations (Normas para el funcionamiento de las estaciones migratorias y estancias provisionales), temporary holding center “A” allows a maximum stay of 48 hours and “B” allows a maximum stay of 7 days.

Act of solidarity calls for an end to immigration detention

United in the belief that immigration detention is not a solution and that we need to create new perspectives, IDC and the Campaign to End the Immigration Detention of Children joined forces this month with the translocal migrant movement Flourish Here and There. On July 6th, Mexico City's historic grand square, the Zócalo, filled with art, music and the voices of those who for some reason had to leave their countries, in an act of solidarity in favor of local well-being across borders: migrant, refugee, deported, returned, detained and undocumented persons, citizens, families, neighbors and communities.

The importance of hearing migrant voices, many of them having lived through the experiences of detention and deportation, cannot be overestated at this critical time of acute criminalization of human mobility. The so-called “crisis” we face as a society is that of normalizing discrimination and making xenophobia acceptable. Celebrating the realities of migration and the hope that characterizes it, through music, dance, art, children's books and activities, is undoubtedly part of the solution.

The spirit of inclusion and solidarity brought together artists in pro bono collaboration, including three cumbia djs, the rapper Dayra Fyah, the migrant ensamble “Latido Nómada”, the band the Mexican Standoff from Los Angeles and the Singing City Choir from Philadelphia, the publisher ateconqueso, the social innovation group Activate Labs, many many volunteers, with migrant groups and partner organizations in Mexico, Central America and the United States.

Invited by the organization Otros Dreams en Accion (ODA), they presented 6 joint proposals, symbolically represented (by binational artist Emily C-D) by a carpet in the shape of a mandala made of seeds, grains and flowers that remind us of human mobility, freedom of movement, nourishment, the ability to grow and flourish in different places, and painted posters in the hands of a compass that guides us.

  1. Abolish Migrant Detention: Detention and deportation are not part of the solution.
  2. Families belong together: Separating migrant families is a crime against humanity.
  3. Diverse communities: Natural ecosystems thrive with diversity, and human culture is no exception. Discrimination is dehumanization, lives are on the line.
  4. Safety and inclusion: Safety and inclusion for all migrants creates safer communities for all of us.
  5. Education and jobs: This is the key for strong (trans) local economies.
  6. People before papers: Documents should create access instead of inequality.

Solidarity spreads and parallel events were held in other cities: in San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala City, Tapachula, Ixtepec, Queretaro, Tijuana, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.

For more information, to join the campaign or make a donation visit Florecer aquí y allá.

To learn more about alternatives to detention visit How IDC Defines ‘Alternatives to Detention’

How IDC Defines ‘Alternatives to Detention’

Even though the phrase ‘alternatives to detention’ is present in numerous international human rights instruments, it is not an established legal term or a prescriptive concept. In fact, different stakeholders often use varying definitions of the term. As a working definition, the IDC understands alternatives to detention to mean: “any law, policy or practice by which persons are not detained for reasons related to their migration status.”

For IDC, alternatives to detention (or ‘ATD’) are a key element of the strategy to limit and end the use of immigration detention; and for this reason, we choose to use a broad definition. This expansive definition incorporates a range of options available to governments to manage migration without resorting to detention. By compiling different ATD examples found in law, policy and practice, we’re able to offer ideas and starting points for each country to continue to limit use of immigration detention and ensure detention is not being implemented illegally or unnecessarily.

ATD in law

For example, when we discuss ATD in law, we are able to point to examples in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, among others. Often, ATD in law limits the use of detention by prohibiting it for certain groups of people, especially those in vulnerable situations. IDC recommends that laws include a mandate to explore ATD implementation before resorting to detention, as well as judicial review of all decisions to deprive someone of their liberty.


ATD Policy

An important distinction between implementing ATD in law and implementing ATD policy, is that sometimes the latter is more accessible to governments given it is not required to pass through a legislative process. For example, in Mexico, immigration and refugee authorities coordinate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and civil society organizations to implement a release program from asylum seekers. People seeking asylum in Mexico can be released from immigration detention to live in the community in their own home or in a shelter. They are obligated to periodically report to authorities during their asylum process, while UNHCR and civil society organizations provide support to help them satisfy their basic needs.

ATD in practice

ATD in practice often depend on participation by civil society organizations for their operation, and in some circumstances, without any government support. For example, in the US, the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants operates a group home for men where they can live and continue to participate in their migration or asylum process. The home functions as an ATD in practice for people who have been released from detention, although the program does not receive support from the US government.


In countries where immigration detention is the exception rather than the rule, ATD in practice are highly diverse and are often integrated into social services and national protection or public support systems that are available to all people living in the community, both immigrants and nationals.

ATD exist and are effective

IDC’s body of research shows that the most effective ATD in terms of reaching legitimate government aims and guaranteeing human rights are those that involve both government and civil society in their development, implementation and evaluation.


While none of these ATD examples are perfect, they demonstrate the variety of options available to governments to carry-out migration management without the use of detention.

Unfortunately, we continue to observe that the primary focus of ATD implementation is still enforcement and control mechanisms, such as restrictions on freedom of movement, bail or bond, and reporting requirements. These mechanisms seek to promote compliance with immigration procedures but have generated little evidence of effectiveness.

Instead, a growing body of research and evidence shows that the most effective ATD are those that engage migrants in immigration and asylum procedures, in particular through tailored case management. This involves a social work approach, and is a comprehensive strategy to provide specialized support with migrants, empowering them to participate in decision-making as they navigate complex legal and administrative migration processes.

Learn more:

Frequently Asked Questions about ATD

More ATD examples from the Americas and around the world

Elements of the most effective ATD and the Community Assessment and Placement Model: There Are Alternatives

Free ATD online courses

Latest Evidence for Ending Family Detention

Written by Dr. Robyn Sampson

Senior Advisor, International Detention Coalition

The program demonstrates that case management works in achieving immigration compliance at a tiny fraction of the fiscal cost of detention and without the human cost and cruelty of separating families or detention.

The Women’s Refugee Commission in the US has released a new evaluation of the Family Case Management Program, which operated in the United States between January 2016 and June 2017. This government-funded program was designed to test the effectiveness of tailored supervision with vulnerable families - such as pregnant women, nursing mothers, and families with special needs children - who were waiting for their immigration court hearings.

Holistic Case Management Approach

The program was designed on the basis that meeting basic needs, exploring all options in the individual case, and building trust would result in participants who were more ready, willing and able to comply with all aspects of the immigration process. The FCMP service framework involved three main components:

  1. Monitoring Individualised and interactive compliance monitoring with dedicated ICE Officers
    • Low caseload ensures on-going supervision of cases and rapport with participants
  2. Access Access to community based services
    • Facilitates community services individualised to participant needs through a professional trusting relationship
  3. Orientation Mandated orientation programming for participants
    • FCMP staff and officers act as “system navigators”

Together, the three components served as a method to promote compliance while allowing participants to remain in their community as they moved through the immigration process.

The program was contracted by the government to GEO Care to provide holistic case-management services on an estimated 20:1 family unit to case manager ratio. This company then partnered with community-based social service and faith-based organizations to provide additional support services. In addition, GEO Care partnered with legal assistance programs to ensure clients access Know Your Rights presentations and other forms of basic legal information exchange. The head of household for each family was required to attend a legal orientation program providing information on their legal obligations, immigration proceedings and basic US laws.

Case managers worked with each family to develop a family service plan and to facilitate access to community services. This included support for participation in immigration processes, such as departure planning and preparation support, as well as referrals for legal, medical, food, education and other basic needs.

The program was offered in Baltimore/Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; New York City/Newark; Miami; and Chicago. Each of the five locations was able to manage up to 160 family units, making for a total capacity of 800 family units across the program.


A total of 2,163 people - made up of 952 heads of household and 1,211 dependents - participated in the program. An internal evaluation by the main provider found the holistic case management approach produced strong results. The program recorded 93% attendance at legal orientation, 99% attendance at court proceedings, 97% program check-in compliance, and an 87% favourable rate when a participant was terminated from the program. The program also produced independent departures, and better coping and wellbeing outcomes for children and families. The program cost US$36 per day per family, compared with US$140 per person per day in adult immigration detention, and $798 per family in family detention. Further improvements identified during the WRC evaluation, as well as a longer program operation period, would have likely created even better outcomes.


The IDC’s body of research shows that There Are Alternatives that are effective, affordable, and humane. The US Family Case Management Program provides even further evidence that case management focused on meeting basic needs and providing trustworthy advice will result in high compliance rates, low costs, and less harmful alternatives to detention.

Further Reading

Arbitrary Detention a Focus of CMW Report on Mexico and Ecuador

The UN Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers has published findings on Mexico and Ecuador as two of the countries examined during its latest session from 4 to 13 September.

The Committee expresses concern over the use of arbitrary detention in both countries, reiterating the need for the right to liberty of all migrant workers and members of their families to be respected.


Paragraph 37 of the concluding observations for Mexico state:

The Committee is deeply concerned at the high number of custodial measures applied to migrants in the 58 migrant holding centres around the country.

It is concerned at the delegation’s claims that such detention (called “securing” or “presentation”) does not amount to deprivation of liberty, or that it may be described as a protective measure or a benefit.

It is also concerned at the presence in holding centres of families, pregnant women, trafficking victims, asylum seekers and other persons in situations of increased vulnerability and in need of special protection.

Likewise, it notes with particular concern the detention of children and adolescents, many of them unaccompanied or very young, whose numbers increased by 900 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

This measure constitutes without exception a violation of the rights of the child and the child’s best interests.

The concluding observations of Ecuador call for a comprehensive investigation to be held into arbitrary detention, raising concerns about the use of immigration detention at airports, among other sites (paragraphs 22 and 23). It also raises concerns about the ability of children to access children and adolescents seeking asylum, see paragraph 40:

[The Committee] is concerned by the fact, however, that article 129, paragraph 2, of the Organic Act on Human Mobility prohibits the entry of unaccompanied children who do not have the permission of their parents or legal guardians


Access the entire findings on Mexico here.

Access the entire findings on Ecuador here.

How Change Happened in Thailand

Interview compiled by Vivienne Chew 

Asia Pacific Regional Coordinator, International Detention Coalition


On 21 January 2019, following years of sustained and strategic advocacy by the IDC, its members and other stakeholders, the Thai government announced it had established new internal government procedures to release children and their mothers from immigration detention to community-based alternatives. This remarkable development now positions Thailand as a leader in the region on this issue. In the aftermath of the  MOU signing, Puttanee Kangkun, Senior Human Rights Specialist at IDC member organisation Fortify Rights reflects on what the change means and how it happened.

How important a development is the MOU for refugee and migrant children in Thailand?

It’s really significant because it’s concrete and solid. There was very little protection for refugees or asylum seekers before. But the Prime Minister made a speech at the New York Summit in 2016 and publicly affirmed the need to end child detention. We saw that as a big step then, and this as an even bigger step now.

What are some of the key factors and events that you believe led to the government making the decision to draft and sign the MOU?

This is very significant for Thai people, and those of us who work on refugee issues here. It happened through a combination of efforts over years of advocacy work. The global campaign work on child detention helped to build a global trend and global norm that influenced the Thai government. Especially in the past couple of years, there has been a change of perspective within the government on these issues, as well as a change of policies towards refugees. More awareness was developed in the government of the UN treaties, issues of detention, and the need to report on global standards and regulations. This was an international pressure, because Thailand wants to be a good member of the international community and global economy.


Photo from latest civil society coalition meeting in Thailand.


At the same time, within the country, there has been a movement of local civil society organisations, people and activists. They are echoing the voices of refugees and refugee communities. Sometimes they criticised the government for their policies, which put pressure on officials. The Rohingya crisis also brought more attention to the issue, and an urgent need to address these issues publicly. There became an understanding in Thai society and the government that we cannot push people under the rug anymore. It’s up to our society to do better.

Do you think civil society played an important role? How? What were some of the key things that civil society did?

Children are always a key concern for Thai society. People support work to help children, it’s a very sensitive issue for Thai people and culture. Civil society organisations in Thailand worked to develop the understanding that this issue is about protection for all children, not just Thai children. It was useful to highlight this strong underlying value, because it overrides issues of immigration status. Thai society welcomes policies that protect children, and this support is good for the government. Eventually officials said that their child protection laws should cover all children, not just Thai children. And then from mid 2017, they have been removing children from detention and placing them in foster care.

The scorecard* also helped us to engage with government agencies as part of a process. We formed a group of organisations to work on this issue together in Thailand - including Coalition for the Rights of Stateless Persons and Refugees (CRSP), Asylum Access Thailand (AAT), Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), Save the Children Thailand, Fortify Rights and others. The scorecard has become an educational tool as well. It helps civil society organisations uncover the elements we need to look at more closely. We used it not to criticise, but to strategise together. Even with the value and principles of child rights, the government still needed education and capacity building to support children outside of detention and develop alternatives. There was no child care management for migrant and refugee children in urban settings before.


Photo from latest civil society coalition meeting in Thailand.


This intersection of child rights and refugee rights is very new in Thailand. We have now engaged organisations that work on child rights issues more broadly, and influenced their inclusion of refugee children in their work. They have also taught us to include the rights of children more clearly in our overall refugee rights work. The exchange of expertise within our networks was very important for developing knowledge to address this specific issue of child immigration detention. Our coalition has been meeting almost every month to strategise on this, and we are lucky to have a very engaged and collaborative group of organisations involved.

There are both Thai-based organisations involved, and external global and regional organisations. I believe you need both. External organisations can push and provide global frameworks that can influence our governments, but you need local groups to actualise and contextualise the policies, and also monitor the implementation of policies. You need local actors to make change happen, and continue long-term engagement with their own government. It’s very important for people and their own governments to be able to work together, with the support of the international community.

What’s next?

Moving forward we need more models for alternatives to detention. We are developing more community placement models now. This knowledge is new, and we need to continue to build it and sustain it. We also need to carefully monitor the implementation of this MOU, and be sure that family unity and reunification are part of it.


Group photo of organisations working to advance refugee and child rights in Thailand.


*The scorecard is part of the NextGen Index, a project of the International Detention Coalition. The scorecard is a comparative tool used to assess States on their progress towards ending child immigration detention. The Index uses a standard scoring framework to identify the key factors that ensure national migration management systems are sensitive to the needs of children, and avoid detention. More on the 2018 version of the NextGen Index here.

Community Hosting as an Alternative in MENA

Local Households Provide Stability After “Toxic Stress”

Written by Junita Calder

Middle East & Africa Regional Coordinator, International Detention Coalition

For many of us, stress is equated with an extra busy work week or a family disagreement.  We don’t have to think too hard in order to apply the coping strategies that we learned as children, secure in a safe and loving family environment.

But what happens to children who are torn from their families by conflict or displacement, subjected to ongoing ‘Toxic Stress’ by continued insecurity in the countries where they attempt to find safety?

According to research presented in this Time magazine article: “Toxic stress can have long-term repercussions, affecting a child’s physical growth — slowing them down from putting on height and weight — and transforming their brain architecture. According to studies, children separated from their parents early in life and raised without a constant, loving caregiver suffer a profound impact on cognitive ability, social function, mental health and brain development.”

It is for this reason that we at the IDC are so encouraged to learn about community hosts who are stepping forward in the MENA Region, to take in and provide alternative care for refugee and migrant children – and vulnerable adults – who have been separated from their families.  These North African and Middle Eastern households are giving their ‘guests’ a stable home in which to decompress and begin to recover from their traumatic experiences.

Over the next few months, the IDC will share examples of – and learnings from – Community Hosting care arrangements which are being run as pilot programmes by Civil Society groups and as rights-respecting migration governance options by governments, in the MENA Region.  We will also share the legal framework at the national and regional levels, which enables the provision of such programmes.

According to the UNHCR, in 2016:
  • children constituted 51% of the total refugee population globally, up from 41% in 2009.
  • Unaccompanied or separated children – mainly Afghans and Syrians – lodged some 75,000 asylum applications in 70 countries in 2016, although this figure is assumed to be an underestimate.
  • In the Middle East, more than 2.4 million boys and girls had been forced to flee Syria; and
  • More than 1 million children had been forced to flee the continued insecurity in South Sudan – children constitute 62% of the refugees from South Sudan.

As we know, “…most refugees actually settle in neighbouring countries. “The countries in the [MENA] region are taking the brunt of the displacement caused by conflict…” so ‘homegrown’ solutions such as community hosting care arrangements are vital to ensure that non-citizen people living in MENA countries are able to enjoy their rights, without the fear of arbitrary and unnecessary immigration detention. Additionally, we know that “…the most powerful tool that can make a difference to [migrant] children under toxic stress — [is] a stable, loving, known caregiver.”

By providing stability, nurture and support, community hosts are facilitating the recovery and flourishing of displaced people in the MENA Region.  We look forward to sharing more about specific programmes, the learnings and the healthy relationships that are beginning to emerge, as MENA households practice generosity, hosting vulnerable migrant guests.

Stay tuned for more in this series on community hosting in MENA.

Africa is Leading the Way

Significant Changes in Refugee Policies Regarding Integration and Enjoyment of Rights


Written by Tiffany Shakespeare

Africa Programme Officer, International Detention Coalition


The government of Ethiopia changed its refugee laws, granting refugees access to work, banking and financing services.  According to the All Africa news website “Even with its economic struggles, Ethiopia has recognised the positive impact that refugee integration could have on its communities and local economies.”

In January, the government of Uganda has unveiled a five year health sector response plan for refugees in the country, together with host communities, targeting at least eight millions people.

Updates From IDC Africa Members

  • Refugee Law Project (RLP) Uganda is celebrating their 20 year anniversary this year (#[email protected]). This month they launched their new “Training Manual” and “User Guide” on “Refugee Rights and Protection” which are available to download here. Launched after months of research and consultation, the guides can be used to facilitate quality capacity building programmes that improve refugee-and-host community relations, through enhanced protection, in Uganda and elsewhere.


  • Lawyers for Human Rights South Africa (LHR) staff member, Faith Munyati was a panelist at the event: “Does South Africa welcome African refugees?” held on 19 February to discuss the challenges and possible solutions to the ailments affecting the refugee and asylum regime in South Africa. More information here.


  • CoRMSA South Africa, in collaboration with Johannesburg Child Welfare, hosted a workshop on refugee, migrant and asylum seeker rights, providing children with an opportunity to have their voice heard in advocacy work.


  • Refugee Consortium Kenya (RCK) held a community dialogue forum with Kenyans and refugees in Kitengela to discuss elimination of violence against women and girls.

IMPORTANT: Call for Inputs on Immigration Detention


WHAT: The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families has decided to elaborate General Comment No. 5 on Migrants’ Rights to Liberty and Freedom from Arbitrary Detention. This is a critical opportunity to provide input and feedback on fundamental human rights issues. The Committee invites all stakeholders to provide inputs to this initiative through a questionnaire by 1 April 2019. The concept note and questionnaire are available in English and Spanish HERE.

HOW: Please send responses electronically in Word format to [email protected] with subject line “Submission for General Comment on Migrants’ Right to Liberty.”  Submissions should not exceed 10 pages. Written submissions will not be translated and should preferably be submitted in English, however submissions in French and Spanish will also be accepted. All submissions will be posted on the webpage of the Committee unless explicitly indicated to the contrary.

Any questions should be addressed to the Secretary of the Committee, Mr. Luc Mubiala, at [email protected].


If you would like to inquire about being connected to other organisations in your region also working on responses, please contact the following IDC regional offices:

Americas [email protected]

Europe [email protected]

Africa [email protected]

Middle East & North Africa [email protected]

Asia Pacific [email protected]

Advocating for Alternatives to Detention in Europe

A version of this article was originally published in European Programme for Integration and Migration (EPIM) Policy Update February 2019


Written by Jem Stevens

Europe Regional Coordinator, International Detention Coalition


What progress are we making towards change to reduce immigration detention? This was the main question we asked ourselves with European Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Network partners, when we met for our fourth regular meeting in Brussels in February.

The context is difficult, with intense political pressure to resolve the perceived crisis of migration in the region. While EU policy is promoting more and longer detention to increase returns and prevent secondary movement, several countries are planning expansions of the use of detention. Effective opposition to detention is becoming harder and harder, as governments feel that they have no option but to do something.  

Set up in March 2017, the European ATD Network is a space for strategizing for a different future to the looming dystopia of widening mass detention in Europe – because to achieve reform away from immigration detention, we believe we need to both make it a political problem and provide solutions. The Network links NGO partners running case management ATD pilots in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and the UK, with IDC and PICUM.

We started by developing a shared theory of change, setting out how implementing small alternatives pilots in four countries could build learning, evidence and momentum to work towards the expansion of alternatives and reduction of detention. We sought to address key barriers in Europe: a lack of practice and evidence on engagement-based ATD and limited NGO buy-in for solutions-based advocacy around alternatives.  

It was and is a challenging strategy.  Can small NGOs, doing structured case management with small numbers of migrants in four countries, really be the seed for wider change across a Europe increasingly in thrall to populism and xenophobia?

Left to themselves, governments are likely to propose ever more extreme forms of coercion and detention, because those are the tools that they have. Can civil society alternatives to detention, based on high quality case management, show that engagement with migrants in the community works better for everyone?

Almost two years on, though geopolitical optimism in general is in even shorter supply, the Network is seeing real progress on our strategy. Momentum around alternatives is building: the European Commission is putting significant political investment into alternatives involving civil society, while a range of regional, national and local stakeholders are increasingly exploring, promoting and collaborating around ATD.

And we now have evidence to point to: EPIM’s first independent evaluation of pilots shows that 97% of migrants stayed engaged – in countries with often high overall rates of secondary movement - and that case management had a positive impact towards case resolution in 88% of cases. The qualitative findings are helping us frame the discussion with decision-makers to address the full complexity of strengthening immigration systems, rather than being limited to crude metrics of short-term return numbers.

But less obvious achievements are equally significant. The Network has become a hub of learning among trusted allies and beyond. Last week in Brussels, we exchanged with NGOs from a host of other countries who are working on ATD as a strategy – from Greece and Lithuania to Belgium and Slovakia. This national-level civil society engagement is crucial for getting governments on board with alternatives that can really lead to detention reduction.

We’ve seen this in the UK, where strategic campaigning linked with advocacy around an ATD pilot has been successful in achieving change. In July 2018, the government made a high-profile commitment to fund further NGO-led alternatives projects as part of detention reform which has already seen the numbers of people in detention reduce by 40%.

There are many ongoing challenges to wrestle with, not least how we can develop alternatives in complex political contexts and work with migrants towards resolving their cases, when there are very few options. It’s also a long-term strategy, as the UK experience shows.

But despite these challenges, levels of confidence at our Network meeting were high. At a time when there’s unprecedented pressure to detain regionally, there was a sense that this growing movement on alternatives could be a catalyst for change - towards migration management systems that produce better outcomes for migrants, communities and governments without relying on detention.

For more information please see:

The European ATD Network is supported by EPIM. Please also see EPIM Call for Proposals: "Unlocking Alternatives. Piloting new pathways to migrant case resolution." Deadline for proposals is 4 April, 2019.