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Punishing the victims of persecution: Churches speak out on detention

01 October 2005

diakonia & solidarity team
work with uprooted people

World Council of Churches Global Ecumenical Network on Uprooted Peoples (GEN) statement circulated at the October 2005 meeting in Geneva of the UNHCR Executive Committee

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 practiced 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 centers.

Churches are alarmed by the phenomenon of repressive crackdowns against migrants. Malaysia is perhaps the most flagrant example of this phenomenon, practicing 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 centers 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 centers, 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 centers 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 centers 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 and hospitality.

We recall and reaffirm the words of the World Council of Churches Central Committee in its 2005 statement, "Practising hospitality in an age 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 toward using security concerns to justify detention of all undocumented migrants and/or asylum-seekers;

To press governments not to pursue actions to criminalise 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 centers 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 centers.

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 travelers 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.