Punishing the victims of persecution: Churches speak out on detention
WCC Global Ecumenical Network on Uprooted Peoples (GEN) statement circulated
at the meeting in Geneva of the UNHCR Executive Committee, 5 October 2005
Churches have decried the increased use of arbitrary detention to punish and deter
the victims of torture, persecution and abject poverty. "Without commensurate
efforts to address the root causes of men, women, children and families displaced
throughout the world, countries are simply dumping the burden of caring for
these people on other countries," said James Thomson, representative of the network.
Christian churches around the world are deeply concerned by the increasing use of detention
to restrict and deter cross-border movement by asylum seekers and other migrants. Detention,
already widely practised by northern governments, has increased significantly
post 9/11, raising serious concerns about practices of arbitrary detention, mistreatment
of detainees, inadequate consideration of the needs of vulnerable detainees,
and restrictive access to asylum procedures. At the same time, the widespread use
of discourses of national security and "the war on terror" to justify detention practices
has created an adverse climate for churches to persuade national governments
to heed their concerns.
"We call upon the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) at its forthcoming meeting (3-7 October) to denounce
the repressive trends outlined below and urge governments to pursue approaches
that fully respect human rights."
Churches are concerned at the wide net cast by detention policies in many countries, targeting
asylum seekers together with other migrants who make clandestine border crossings but
present no real threat to public safety. The freedom to seek asylum is seriously undermined
by the threat of arbitrary detention. In Africa, countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe
and South Africa automatically detain those who have entered the country without
passing through formal border controls. In the Middle East, where most countries
have yet to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers and other
migrants who enter the country without legal papers are also at high risk of detention.
Even in countries where detention policies are more selective, churches witness
discriminatory practices. In Canada, for example, there is concern that asylum
seekers are being disproportionately targeted for detention on the grounds
of flight risk.
Australia, for many years one of the most enthusiastic practitioners of mandatory,
indefinite and non-reviewable detention, has recently seen some welcome
changes and pragmatic flexibility in its detention policy, including the release of
families with children from detention and greater measures for review and release
of "long term detainees". However, detention is still far from a last resort and the
"Pacific solution" remains in force, with excision of thousands of islands from
Australia's migration zones and a policy of transferring new boat arrivals to Pacific
island detention and processing centres.
Churches are alarmed by the phenomenon of repressive crackdowns against migrants. Malaysia
is perhaps the most flagrant example of this phenomenon, practising periodic crackdowns
against "illegal" migrant workers. Disturbingly, the government has used
civilian volunteers to help carry out these crackdowns, offering "rewards" for the
capture of undocumented migrants - a "bounty" that encourages vigilantism. The
Dominican Republic has also exercised aggressive crackdowns targeted against
Haitians and Dominico-Haitians, some of whom have resided in the country for
years. In Zimbabwe, police sweeps have been directed against undocumented
migrants, including asylum seekers. There is considerable concern at the violence
and brutality with which such crackdowns are carried out, as well as the disregard
of individual circumstances (such as claims to asylum, or claims to citizenship in
the case of people of Haitian background born in the Dominican Republic). There
is also concern about the fate of children of undocumented migrants caught up in
these crackdowns. In some cases, these children may in fact be stateless, with no
legal recognition in either the host country or their parents' home country.
More generally, churches are disturbed by reports of abuse and mistreatment of immigration
detainees by detention staff. Some of the most serious incidents include allegations
of rape and mock execution by staff at the Carmichael Detention Centre in
the Bahamas, and reports of beatings and even deaths due to the withholding of
proper medical treatment at detention centres in South Africa.
Churches around the world are concerned about the detention conditions experienced by
migrants and asylum seekers. Overcrowding is a serious problem in the Caribbean,
the Middle East and South Africa. There are also widespread concerns about the
detention of migrants and asylum seekers among common criminals, in violation
of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This takes place even
in industrialized countries like Canada. Furthermore, there is widespread concern
at the ongoing detention of vulnerable persons such as children, pregnant women,
people with serious physical and mental health problems and survivors of torture.
There is often inadequate attention to the special needs of detained persons, especially
the most vulnerable. In Australia, the 2005 Palmer Inquiry expressed concern
about the exercise of exceptional power, without adequate training or oversight,
and with no genuine quality assurance or constraints on these powers.
Churches warn that detention practices frequently undermine access to asylum. In the
United States, the recently passed Real ID Act increased evidentiary requirements
for asylum seekers. Many of the required documents are difficult to obtain, particularly
for asylum seekers who have limited access to communication with the
outside world. In Canada, there are serious concerns about lack of access to legal
counsel. In another context, South Africa appointed a Zimbabwean official to
interview asylum seekers (many of them from Zimbabwe) at the Lindela Detention
Centre, raising serious concerns about politically motivated decision- making.
Churches are concerned that the global trend towards exporting borders increases detention
and undermines refugee protection. Countries like Australia, Italy and the United
States are already using offshore detention and processing centres, where the
accountability, transparency and responsibility for protection is weak and unclear;
where refugee status determination systems lack capacity and expertise; where
there is little access to legal counsel to help prepare asylum applications; and no
right to judicial review of decisions. Existing and potentially available offshore
processing centres include: the excised Christmas Island and Pacific-based centers
on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (for Australia); Libya (for
asylum seekers and irregular migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa),
and Guantanamo Bay (for the US). Furthermore, the use of Safe Third Country
agreements in Europe and North America results in asylum seekers being turned
back to countries where they face a higher risk of detention and therefore reduced
chances of being successful in their asylum claim.
Churches are disturbed by the way in which states forcibly remove immigration detainees
with little or no consideration of their needs upon arrival in the country of return. In one
disturbing development, European countries have removed detained asylum seekers
to Africa without taking into account their country of origin, or considering
the consequences of abandoning people in a country that is not their own. Central
American countries have had to set up reception centres for destitute migrants
who are deported in handcuffs from the US without any opportunity to access
their bank accounts before they leave.
Churches also protest the practice of interdiction (interception at sea) and refoulement to
home countries without consideration of possible asylum claims. Such practices violate a
country's obligations under the Refugee Convention. The United States' use of
its navy to intercept and return boats from Haiti is a well-known example.
In summary, churches are concerned that the global trend towards criminalizing refugees,
asylum seekers and migrants through tightened borders and increased detention results in
decreased security for uprooted people and heightened vulnerability to exploitation, by smugglers
and human traffickers along their journeys and by unscrupulous employers in the
host country. Such a response does nothing to address the root causes of forced migration,
which include regional conflicts, climate change and sea level rise, and loss of livelihood
due to corporate globalization and free trade agreements that disadvantage countries of
the South. Faced with this situation, the WCC GEN participants reaffirm our
belief in the God-given dignity of all human beings, our commitment to advocating
for the rights of uprooted people, and our dream of a world of compassion
We recall and reaffirm the words of the World Council of Churches Central
Committee in its 2005 statement, "Practising hospitality in an era of new forms
of migration," which called upon member churches:
To challenge governments who seek to introduce ever more restrictionist
entry policies and to challenge the trend towards using security concerns to
justify detention of all undocumented migrants and/or asylum-seekers;
To press governments not to pursue actions to criminalize migrants or those
who seek to protect them and to encourage governments to do more to create
and facilitate welcoming societies and to foster the integration of refugees
and migrants into their communities;
To insist, as a matter of principle, that undocumented migrants and asylum-
seekers are detained only in exceptional circumstances and that in those
exceptional circumstances, people are detained for only a limited time and
can avail themselves of judicial review and legal advice. Under no circumstances
should conditions of detention for migrants and asylum-seekers be
lower than that for convicted criminals.
Furthermore, we affirm the important role played by the churches in serving the
needs and rights of migrants and asylum seekers. We deplore the recent killings
and harassment of church workers advocating for uprooted peoples in the Philippines.
We call upon all governments to facilitate the work of the churches with the uprooted.
Particularly, we urge governments to grant access to detention centres by church and civil
society groups so that they might more effectively offer assistance to a highly vulnerable population.
We further call upon the UNHCR to lend its support to this request by churches
for access to detention centres.
As participants in the WCC Global Ecumenical Network on Uprooted People,
we commit ourselves anew to listen, learn, and be challenged by the voices of our
sisters and brothers of every faith, race, nationality, class, and age in detention.
May we ourselves be faithful travellers on a journey whose destination is a world
of life, love and liberation. We seek the active support of the UNHCR and other
United Nations' bodies in this noble goal.