‘Locked up like animals’ — immigrant detention centers in the time of the coronavirus

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The reporting for this article was carried out by Monty Aal, Mohammad Abu Hawash, Kanan Azimov, Sophia Fehrenbach, Grace Linczer, Nina Melkonyan, Oisín Nolan, Laura Palencikova and Vanda Pozner, masters students at the Central European University in Vienna, under the editorship of Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University’s Democracy Institute.

Life in a European immigration detention center wasn’t easy before COVID-19. The pandemic has only made things worse.

Interviews with government officials, NGOs, border protection forces and detained asylum seekers from nine countries paint a worrying picture of how the conditions of some of the most vulnerable people in Europe worsened during the coronavirus crisis.

Across the Continent, hurried and uncoordinated responses to the pandemic and inadequate funding have resulted in prolonged detentions, stricter conditions and overcrowded facilities — often seemingly in violation of European Union laws.

“It was my worst experience ever,” said Ahmed (not his real name), an Afghan refugee who was detained in Austria, after his asylum application was turned down.

“Coronavirus restrictions were imposed, and we were locked up like animals for days,“ he added. “We had no more access to legal advice.”

Lockdown limbo

The mistreatment of immigrants in Europe’s detention centers is a long-standing problem. NGOs and other watchdogs have highlighted inhumane conditions and capricious legal systems for decades — and the problem has only grown worse since the 2015 refugee crisis.

And so when the pandemic broke, top officials and intergovernmental organizations were quick to ask that migrants be treated fairly and humanely.

The European Commissioner for Human Rights issued a directive that all Council of Europe members review the cases of immigrants being held in detention. She asked they be released “to the maximum extent possible.” Similar demands came from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), a U.N. body, which called on members to urgently “review existing cases of deprivation of liberty in all detention settings, and determine whether the detention is still justified as necessary and proportionate in the prevailing context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Unfortunately, these requests seemed to fall on deaf ears. As the virus raced across Europe during the spring of 2020, the EU sealed its borders in an attempt to reduce the spread. As flights were cancelled and embassies were shut, travel from the EU to third countries also ground to a halt.

As a result, European nations were mostly unable to deport migrants back to their countries of origin. However, rather than release detainees, as would be required under the EU Returns Directive when repatriation is deemed impossible, most EU member countries — with a few exceptions, such as Spain and the Netherlands — continued to hold them in administrative and ad hoc detention facilities for prolonged periods of time.

Overcrowded conditions

Legal provisions on the length and conditions of detention vary widely across the Continent, though most countries impose shorter limits on unaccompanied minors and families. Cyprus and Greece, for example, normally limit detentions to 18 months, while Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Germany set the limit at six months. Spain and France, on the other hand, limit initial detention periods to 60 and 90 days, respectively.

As the coronavirus upended the normal deportation process, these limits were often ignored in countries across the Continent.

Initially, “detention periods were extended in anticipation of a short lockdown period,” said Olivia Sundberg Diez, a migration policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. “But [they] were further extended when it appeared that the pandemic-induced lockdown would go on for months or even longer.”

The resultant overcrowding quickly became a serious issue in many countries.

In Malta, for example, centers that were originally designed for the reception of migrants were converted into detention facilities as the number of indefinite detentions soared.

“The detention centers are full, crowded,” said Dominik Kalweit, vice-executive director of Kopin, a Malta-based NGO. He added that there were many cases of people, including vulnerable individuals and minors, being detained for much longer than the law allows.

“We were told COVID was to blame, but we slept in dirt, and there was a [single] shower for dozens of detainees,” said an immigrant who was detained at Lyster Barracks in Malta.

In Italy, a frontline country for migration, the pandemic initially slowed the flow of new arrivals. But as of June 2020, the number of journeys across the Mediterranean had returned to its previous levels, and as a consequence, several ad hoc “hotspots” were created. Functioning as both detention centers and makeshift quarantine facilities, migrants were held in these hotspots for an extended length of time, where they were “in a limbo of legal protection,” said Mauro Palma, the Italian human rights ombudsman.

In one of the few contrasting examples, however, the Netherlands, citing the impossibility to execute deportations for the foreseeable future, chose to release 390 detained migrants between March and May 2020. According to Dutch paper de Volkskrant, the country released only an average of 10 to 20 detainees a month before the pandemic.

Disregard for the law 

In addition to prolonged detention and overcrowding, the living conditions and treatment of those in detention centers — already poor — deteriorated even further, even in countries that weren’t previously known for treating detainees badly.

In the Netherlands, the outbreak led to increased use of solitary confinement and the removal of access to recreation areas. Amnesty International found that detainees were sometimes kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. Deserteurs- und Flüchtlingsberatung, a Vienna-based NGO that offers legal services to refugees, described the measures enacted within some centers in Austria as “devastating.”

Stricter conditions for visitors were also introduced in detention centers all across Europe. In addition to limiting immigrants’ access to lawyers and mobile phones, this also prevented independent observers from monitoring facilities.  “NGOs could not visit anymore. We had to meet them outside the centers, in some containers,” said the immigrant detained at Lyster Barracks.

With no observers to follow the situation, in Cyprus, authorities started using some of the country’s reception facilities as detention centers, cramming both asylum seekers and undocumented migrants into the buildings.

“Such decisions were made overnight as nobody was watching,” said a source at the country’s ministry of interior who experienced the process firsthand. “They took immigrants — who were in the process of asylum application — away from the hostels where they had been put by the government and threw them into those detention facilities.”

Some of them were not even allowed to take their belongings with them. Most were held indefinitely without a detention order. “This was against the law, [it was] immoral, unethical, barbaric, however you want to call it,” the Cypriot ministry source said.

Germany was the one counry with a better record of detention conditions, in spite of media reports about the mistreatment of detained immigrants there as well. While the country expanded its detention infrastructure to combat overpopulation, its centers were able to introduce COVID-19 precautions without substantially harming the wellbeing of detainees. Frank Gockel, part of an NGO assisting people in detention in the German town of Büren, said that detainees had constant access to electronic communication, legal counselors and mental health support.

None of the authorities in the countries covered by this report returned our requests for comment. 

The blame game 

Immigration in the EU has always been a contentious issue, and the mechanisms of detention and returns have long been fraught by politicization and byzantine bureaucracy. What the pandemic did was make the system even more arbitrary, as countries across the EU adopted slapdash emergency measures, with little or no coordination between countries.

Malta and Italy no longer guaranteed the safe rescue of migrants; Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands introduced measures suspending the right to asylum; and Hungary used a state of emergency to implement further barriers against persons seeking asylum — a breach of customary international law.

Elina Steinerte, chair of WGAD, the U.N. body, pointed to the rise in arbitrary detention of immigrants and asylum seekers as a worrying consequence of the pandemic.

 “It’s not optional that today you give people liberty and tomorrow you deprive them of their liberty,” Steinerte said. “Prohibition of arbitrary detention stands in peace time, in war time and in pandemic time. Detention should be the exception.”

The EU also failed to allocate adequate funds to halt the drastic deterioration of conditions. None of the budgetary measures adopted by the EU in 2020 directly addressed the health and safety of migrants during the pandemic, and the EU’s Returns Directive doesn’t include anything concerning the rights of immigrants while they are in detention either.

“In many countries their circumstances are worse than [those of] prisoners because the presumption is that they will not return to society,” said Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green MEP. 

The European Parliament’s first rule of law report, issued in 2020, stated that violations of immigration law are also rule of law problems and should have financial consequences for the countries at fault. “Detention should be part of those violations,” said Strik, who was a shadow rapporteur on that report.

So far, however, there has been little done to address the conditions in European detention centers. “I am afraid that what happened will become the new normal,” said Ahmed, the Afghan refugee.



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