A special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has heard calls for an end to the criminalisation of irregular migration and the detention of migrants from NGOs, UN experts and governments of the south.
On 17 September a migrants’ rights network was given a rare chance to tell the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council why undocumented migrants should not be arrested, criminalised or detained, at an unprecedented panel discussion on the detention of migrants which brought together delegates from the forty-seven countries represented at the Council with UN experts and NGOs. William Gois of Migrants’ Rights International (MRI – a global alliance of over 500 migrant associations and human rights, labour, religious and other organisations) called for an end to the criminalisation of migrants, the crackdowns on irregular migrants and detention for profit.
The meeting came about because of the concerns expressed on migrants’ rights in detention by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). In November 2008, the Working Group, which reports to the Human Rights Council, expressed ‘significant human rights concerns’ over the detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Italy and their lack of legal rights, and the Working Group has condemned the mandatory detention of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Malta. The special session was organised to examine the rights of migrants in detention centres.
The panel session was opened by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, El Hadji Malick Sow, president-rapporteur of the working group on arbitrary detention, and Jorge Bustamente, special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. All three UN experts described the trend to criminalise irregular migration as disturbing and a matter for concern, and all agreed that detention of irregular migrants should be a last resort and should never be routine or mandatory. They also agreed that in principle, children should not be detained. Bustamente pointed out the generally unobserved role played by demand for cheap labour in destination countries for irregular migration. He also said that prolonged administrative detention could amount to inhuman or degrading treatment – a sentiment echoed by country representatives from Latin America, who condemned the 18-month time limit on detention for deportation set out in the EU Returns Directive as excessive, disproportionate and unacceptable. The International Commission of Jurists’ delegate said that the 18-month limit in the Returns Directive had led to lengthy increases in the normal detention periods used by EU Member States.
EU Member States’ representatives, on the other hand, claimed that the EU Returns Directive complied with human rights norms and afforded migrants adequate protection. The French delegation claimed that in France migrants were not detained for more than thirty-two days, and most were not held for more than ten, while the Italian delegate commended Italy’s network of ‘first aid’ centres for irregular migrants, which he claimed had saved tens of thousands of lives since 2007.
The Council was also addressed by a representative from Médecins Sans Frontières, who spoke of the appalling conditions of immigration detention, particularly in Malta and Greece, and the lack of appropriate health care. In the next two years, MRI and other civil society organisations hope to obtain a resolution from the Council which will restrict the detention of irregular migrants.