UNHCR calls for end to detention of asylum-seekers and refugees

UNHCR has identified a number of countries to work with initially to revisit detention practices and to strengthen alternatives to detention, including Malta, Hungary, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, UK and Zambia.

UNHCR said that it is concerned about the growing use of immigration detention, particularly of children.
UNHCR said that it is concerned about the growing use of immigration detention, particularly of children.

The UN refugee agency yesterday issued a new global strategy aimed at helping countries move away from the detention of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people worldwide.

Detention of asylum-seekers and refugees has become routine in a number of countries. It has serious lasting effects on individuals and families and the UNHCR said that it is concerned about the growing use of immigration detention, particularly of children.

The new strategy, ‘Beyond Detention’, calls firstly for an end to the detention of children, secondly to ensure that alternatives to detention are available in law and that they are implemented, and thirdly to ensure that conditions of detention - when unavoidable - fully meet international human rights standards.

“Seeking asylum is lawful and the exercise of a fundamental human right,” UNHCR's Director of International Protection Volker Türk said “The detention of asylum-seekers as a routine response should be avoided. These are people who need protection. We are ready to work with governments on this, particularly to end the practice of detaining asylum-seeking children.”

Türk said that the UNHCR recognised that irregular entry or stay presented many challenges to countries, but he said that detaining people was not the answer. “UNHCR recommends that people seeking asylum be properly received, allowed freedom of movement and access to services in the community. Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”

UNHCR has identified a number of countries to work with initially to revisit detention practices and to strengthen alternatives to detention, including Malta, Hungary, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, UK and Zambia. UNHCR plans to expand this group of countries over the coming five years.

“Detention of asylum seekers and refugees causes unnecessary suffering, with often serious consequences for health and well-being, in particular when people are held for long periods. It also increases anxiety, fear and frustrations, and can exacerbate past traumatic experiences. For children, the effects are particularly serious because of the devastating effect detention can have on their physical, emotional and psychological development, even if they are not separated from their families.”

‘Beyond Detention’ is a five-year initiative running from June 2014 to June 2019, through which UNHCR will work with governments and others to address some of the main challenges and concerns around detention policies and practices. Implementation of the strategy is envisaged around the development of national action plans, which will include awareness-raising, capacity-building, strengthening partnerships, information sharing, data collection and reporting, research and monitoring.

In Malta, UNHCR continues to cooperate with the relevant authorities at all levels to identify and work towards a number of common objectives. One such objective relates to ensuring an end to detention for children asylum seekers, as announced by the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat earlier this year.

Recently Malta's President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca hosted a follow-up visit by technical experts from UNHCR and IOM, where discussions were held with Maltese authorities and civil society about potential areas for further cooperation and support.

UNHCR's Representative in Malta, Jon Hoisaeter, referred to the launch of the global strategy as a positive opportunity also for Malta: “UNHCR is reiterating its full commitment to provide further support to Malta in managing challenges with reception of asylum seekers, including as regards development of appropriate alternatives to detention.”

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