Fighting against the detention of migrant children in Belgium

This is a guest post from our Belgian member Rob Kaelen, Project Manager at Plateforme Mineurs en Exil/Platform Kinderen op de Vlucht. The Platform has been coordinating a national campaign against the detention of migrant children since 2017.

In October 2014, the Belgian Government coalition led by Charles Michel (centre-right) announced its plans to build a new detention centre next to the Brussels Airport to detain migrant children and their families. After two years of construction works and almost 2 million euros of expenses, Belgium effectively started locking up children in August 2018.

Since the announcement made by the Government, the Platform Minors in Exile has mobilised to try and convince the Government, opposition parties, civil society organisations and the larger population that detention of children constitutes a violation of their fundamental rights, that it is ineffective, and that it is not necessary, as alternative measures exist.

Before the new policy came into force, Belgium had stopped locking up children for 10 years and used alternatives instead. In fact, Belgium stopped detaining children in 2008 in anticipation of the condemnations by the European Court of Human Rights and developed the so-called “Return Houses” instead. Return Houses are apartments or houses where undocumented families are housed until their administrative situation is clarified. In these Houses, at least one parent must always be present, and the family is not allowed to spend the night elsewhere. On paper, families are still detained, but in practice, the children are allowed to move freely: they can go outside to play, go grocery shopping, or go to school. Even though the Return Houses must be improved in terms of social support and respect for fundamental rights, we still see them as a huge improvement over a closed centre. Unfortunately, the government felt that the Return Houses are not efficient enough and that detention is still needed, as a last resort, to return migrant families.

Since the opening of the closed centre, the authorities have detained a total of 22 children. The ages of these children ranged from a few months to 17 years, with 15 of them being 10 or younger. In the few months that the centre has been used, a doctor and the 2 Belgian children’s ombudsmen repeatedly asked the government to stop detaining children, citing the negative impact detention had on them.

The campaign

The campaign against the detention of children was launched by the Platform Minors in Exile and several of its members: Caritas International Belgium, CIRÉ, Jesuit Refugee Service Belgium, Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen and Unicef Belgium (Amnesty International joined the campaign in August 2018). We wanted the campaign to have a simple message which could appeal to people’s core values. This is how we chose our campaign slogan “You don’t lock up a child. Period.”.

We developed a campaign website,, which provides information about child detention in Belgium and around the world, expert opinions, and our demands to the government. We launched our campaign in June 2017 with a clip, which has been viewed over 250.000 times.One of our aims was to show the huge consensus that exists on this issue among experts, civil society organisations and among the population itself. This is why we invited hundreds of organisations to join our campaign. As of May 2019, our campaign is supported by 325 Belgian organisations, which all agree on the fact that migrant children should never be deprived of their liberty. End of 2018, we also launched a petition, which has since gathered almost 50.000 signatures.

Belgian elections

The Belgian national context provides for interesting opportunities for advocacy work. At the Platform, we were able to meet most political parties to try and convince them that detention is a blatant violation of children’s rights and that there are many interesting opportunities for developing and improving alternatives to detention.

Detention of migrant children has become an important discussion point in political debates and analyses, and was included for instance in “electoral tests” which match the voter’s responses to the positions of the political parties. For our part, we developed an overview of party positions on the issue of child detention, to inform the population but also to try and convince parties that might be on the fence to take a clear stance against child detention.Interestingly, positions are very distinct when comparing both sides of the Belgian linguistic border. All French-speaking parties except one (former Prime Minister Charles Michel’s party, Mouvement Reformateur, centre-right) have positioned themselves against child detention and for an unconditional prohibition on child detention. In Flanders, on the contrary, only two parties took this position (the left-wing Partij van de Arbeid and the green party Groen), as even the Flemish Socialists (sp.a) defend child detention when used as a last resort.

Most importantly, all parties opposing child detention have included this issue in their political programme for the next 4 years. Our hope is that they will further include it among their conditions to take part in a government coalition after the elections.

Another positive sign came with a recent judgment by the Belgian Council of State, which found that child detention in the newly built closed centre constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of the detained, amongst other because of the persistent and loud noise caused by the Brussels Airport air traffic.

We hope that this judgment can bolster our demands and incite our future government to outlaw migrant child detention once and for all and to invest fully into alternatives to detention that are based on case management and let children live in the community. Because you don’t lock up a child. Period.