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COVID-19 Reveals the Inherent Vindictiveness of Migration Detention

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the glaring injustices of the immigration detention system.
 Asylum seekers protest inside the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne, Australia. May 16, 2020. (Picture by Micheal Dodge/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved)

Asylum seekers protest inside the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne, Australia. May 16, 2020. (Picture by Micheal Dodge/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved)

mong the dilemmas that quickly gained attention in countries across the globe as COVID-19 took hold was how to manage prisons and safeguard inmates during the pandemic. Held in conditions where social distancing is effectively impossible and other safeguards are severely lacking, inmates—and their guards—are acutely vulnerable to the spread of the disease, which can impact entire prisons as well as nearby communities.

Calls to protect prisoners amidst dire warnings of spiralling death rates were echoed in countries across the world: In the US, ACLU starkly warned that the country’s mass incarceration could lead to as many as 100,000 additional deaths—both behind jail walls, and within surrounding communities. In Belarus, where authorities—infamous for their slow response to the virus—have failed to take steps to release prisoners, petitions have warned of penitentiary establishments turning into “mass graves.”

Although some countries such as El Salvador have notoriously refused to release prisoners, cramming inmates together in appalling conditions, many have rapidly adopted precautions and downsized their prison populations. In mid-March, Iran announced the temporary release of some 85,000 inmates. Turkey soon followed suit, passing legislation to allow tens of thousands of prisoners to be released.

But while calls to protect prison populations have steadily grown, another detainee population has seemingly been overlooked in many parts of the world: immigration detainees. To be sure, there have been some good examples. In Spain, immigration facilities were completely emptied by early May in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a first in the history of that country. Zambia similarly released all detained non-nationals.

While calls to protect prison populations have steadily grown, another detainee population has seemingly been overlooked in many parts of the world: immigration detainees.

But the trend is clear: in country after country and across all regions of the world—Thailand, Cyprus, and Trinidad and Tobago, to name just a few—as authorities worked to shrink their prison populations, often by targeting low-level offenders and those nearing the ends of their sentences, they stubbornly resisted taking concerted action to empty detention centres. In many cases, detainees remain confined despite the fact that the pandemic has removed the legal basis for many detentions by making it impossible to deport people as borders have closed and flights have been suspended.

In this way, COVID-19 has helped reveal an uncomfortable fact about immigration detention which, although long recognized by activists and experts, should now be impressed upon the public at large: That detainees in immigration custody often do not enjoy the same rights as people who are prosecuted for committing crimes.

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For decades, countries have increasingly relied upon detention to control the movement of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants and to facilitate deportations. Held behind bars, in some cases for indefinite periods of time, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are deprived of their liberty every day for entering countries without permission or documents. Yet, despite the proliferation of detention, facilities are often shielded from public scrutiny, which increases the vulnerability of detainees to abuse.

Striving to improve greater transparency about detention has thus long been a core facet of our work at the Global Detention Project: we seek to develop detailed, systematic information about who is being deprived of their liberty, where they are locked up, and the conditions they face in detention—information that helps us to hold governments to account and ensure better and wider comprehension of the often dire situations that migrants and asylum seekers face around the world. Since our establishment in 2005, the Global Detention Project (GDP) has documented more than 2,300 detention centres worldwide, and information on practices in nearly 100 countries.

Today, as COVID-19 continues to fundamentally reshape societies, this work seems more important than ever. Indeed, for many states it appears that the virus has been utilised to step further away from rights commitments, with states seemingly in a race to the bottom. In Malaysia, which does not recognize refugees, thousands of migrant workers have been targeted in raids in purported effort to protect citizens from COVID-19. In the Balkans, border pushbacks have not only continued, but they have developed new dimensions – horrifying reports of Croatian police spray-painting orange crosses on asylum seekers as they were pushed back into Bosnia have prompted outrage and concern. In Serbia, the government has adopted a weaponised approach to migrants and refugees, sending troops to “secure” and “protect” migrant reception facilities. Importantly, this policy was adopted after authorities announced an easing of lockdown measures – raising concerns that in the wake of the crisis, the borders encountered by non-nationals may grow increasingly hostile.

This is an opportunity to focus our collective attention on a system whose injustices appear all the more glaring in the harsh light of this disease.

Questions such as these, and the realisation that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the health and wellbeing of non-citizens across the globe spurred the GDP to launch its COVID-19 Immigration Detention Platform, a tool for reporting the evolving situation of people in detention and other border control situations. Since launching the platform, we have worked closely with a large, informal network of local partner organisations, which the GDP has built up during its more than a decade of work. Together, we have submitted information requests to government agencies; analysed decrees, statements, and court rulings; reviewed NGO documentation; and monitored local, regional, and international news outlets.

We see this as an opportunity to focus our collective attention on a system whose injustices appear all the more glaring in the harsh light of this disease. But it is not just an information-gathering exercise; it is a shared effort to impact policy by letting countries know that their treatment of this vulnerable population during this extraordinary and tragic moment in history is being scrutinized. People in prison and immigration detention represent one of society’s more vulnerable populations. Governments must be held to account if they fail to protect them.

And just as importantly, by reviewing the actions of countries in the face of this crisis, we have an unexpected opportunity to highlight the inefficacy of immigration detention as a default tool of migration control. In countries where detainee populations are dropping, there are new initiatives emerging urging officials not to re-detain people later. Jesuit Refugees Service in Spain, for instance, has circulated a petition calling on the Spanish government not to reopen the country’s “foreign internment centres” after the crisis has ended. By systemically reporting on these efforts, we hope to contribute to a growing awareness that immigration detention was never that important in the first place, and that it is time to end this practice once and for all.

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn works at the Global Detention Project.

Katie Welsford

Katie Welsford has lived and worked in Egypt and Jordan, and is a writer and researcher on the politics of Egypt and the Levant, with a focus on Islamic activism.

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