Immigration detention in Europe: what safeguards for people with vulnerabilities?

Every year, more than 100,000 people are put in immigration detention in Europe.

In immigration detention, people are uprooted from their communities, and they often don’t know whether and when they will be released or if they will be deported. Often, people in immigration detention don’t have access to adequate information and interpreters, legal aid and medical care. This has a severe impact on mental health. Studies indicate higher incidence of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than among the rest of the population, and an average of very high levels of depression in four out of every five detainees. In 2020, 51% of the immigration detainees in the Brook House centre (UK) were considered at risk of suicide.

Detention is always a harmful practice, which often has long-lasting consequences on peoples’ lives and self-perception. Sometimes, this harm adds to pre-existing situations of vulnerability, like poor physical or mental health, disabilities, past experiences of trauma, or age.

States have an obligation to protect people in situations of vulnerability. As detention severely exacerbates vulnerabilities, and creates new ones, people in situations of vulnerability should never be detained. In the EU, the 2008 Return Directive requires Member States to pay “particular attention” to these groups of people. But as of today, only few countries have mechanisms in place to assess people’s vulnerabilities before they are put in detention. Even when some mechanism is in place, like in Belgium and in the UK, people who are identified as vulnerable are frequently still detained as migration control purposes trump other considerations.

This lack of attention means that states regularly detain pregnant women, LGBTI people, people with mental health issues and even children.

In Belgium and Spain, for instance, people with mental health issues are sometimes placed in solitary confinement, which is otherwise considered a punitive measure. Isolation further deteriorates their mental health condition. Moreover, mental illnesses, despite being an important factor affecting individuals’ situations of vulnerability, are excluded by the definition of the Return Directive and several national legal frameworks.

Children are detained in most European countries, despite broad evidence of the negative impact of even short periods of detention on children health and psychosocial development, and despite consensus at the UN level that detaining children based on migration status is a violation of child rights.

In Greece, women can be held for long periods in police stations without access to basic hygiene products. In the UK, many women denounce pervasive sexual harassment, as health screenings and searches are often done by male medical professionals or guards. In Belgium, some women are held in mixed centres where they are outnumbered by the male population, thus creating discomfort among some.

Men in detention also face specific vulnerabilities, often linked to their young age, experiences of trauma and abuses, and their migratory journey. In some countries, detention centres for men are more densely populated, leading to higher risks of conflict with the staff and poorer conditions.

Transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming persons regularly experience discrimination in detention and are at risk of physical and sexual violence, solitary confinement as well as verbal and psychological abuse.

Detention creates its own vulnerabilities, which add to existing ones. This is why we need a clear legal obligation to assess people’s vulnerability, so they’re not detained in the first place.Definitions of vulnerability should be based on an open-ended list, which takes into consideration the intersectional nature of vulnerability as well as vulnerabilities caused by detention itself. This screening has to be independent, transparent and individualised. In some cases, factors of vulnerability can only be identified with time, and after a relationship of trust is established. As detention itself may exacerbate existing vulnerabilities or even create new ones, vulnerability should be reassessed regularly.