UNHCR report notes fall in refugee child detention in focus countries

Two reports issued on 18 August by the UNHCR, show that 12 countries taking part in a UNHCR strategy to end detention of asylum seekers and refugees have made important progress towards ending detention of children over the past two years.

But achievements were mixed in the two other targets of the UNHCR global strategy “Beyond Detention 2014-2019”: ensuring alternatives to detention are available in law and implemented; and where detention is necessary and unavoidable, ensuring conditions in detention meet international standards.  

The strategy was launched two years ago to assist governments to tackle this important issue. In partnership with states and civil society organizations, it has been rolled out in Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Lithuania, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Zambia. Data compiled from 2013 is used as a baseline, presented in one report alongside a progress report.

“Too many refugees and asylum seekers, including children, are forced to stay in detention centres; when they should be in an environment where they can get the information, support, privacy, and access to their legal rights” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk, adding that asylum seekers and refugees accounted for 17 per cent of all people detained for immigration-related purposes in 2015 in the 12 countries, up from 12 per cent in 2013. 

“This strategy is an important step in ending the counter-productive use of detention and we welcome the encouraging progress made in these two years,” he said, yet stressing that more needs to be done by governments and other stakeholders in the coming years. 

The report, which sets out the strategies and achievements in all 12 countries, notes encouraging progress in ending child detention. Improvements came in areas such as adoption of protective laws and policies to limit or rule out child detention; prioritized processing of the asylum claims of children; enhanced access to age appropriate information in a child-friendly format; and increased attention to the process of appointing qualified guardians. 

These measures contributed to an overall decrease end 2015 of 14 per cent in the total number of children detained across the 12 countries in comparison to 2014, when all the countries detained children for immigration-related purposes. By the end of 2015, two countries had also stopped detaining asylum-seeking children.

Ensuring referral to alternatives to detention, the second goal of the global strategy, has proved more of a challenge. Officials in most of the focus countries still rarely or never consider alternatives in each individual case before detaining. 

On the final goal of improving detention conditions, progress has been moderate, with asylum-seekers and refugees still facing the risk of indefinite detention in one-third of the focus countries due to the absence in law of a maximum time limit in detention.

The report reveals that in a majority of these 12 countries, asylum seekers are still penalized for irregular entry or stay and that they may be detained together with people suspected or convicted of a crime. Access to asylum procedures in detention and procedural safeguards such as the right to access to legal advice, are not always guaranteed in practice. 

Although too early to assess the medium and long-term impact of the roll-out of this strategy, this first assessment indicates emerging trends which could herald changes in coming years in immigration detention policies. The progress results will form the basis for further dialogue with all stakeholders and to help identify and remedy shortcomings and support policy making, particularly in reception and alternatives to detention.

The 12 countries were chosen based on criteria, including regional and thematic diversity, size and significance of the problem, and prospects of progress in the initial roll-out period. Each government has established a national action plan to help address change and implement the strategy. 

To read the two reports, go to: unhcr.org/detention