Innocent until proven refugee

Refugees in Europe are finding themselves behind bars.

Last February a USA-Australia refugee deal unveiled the embarrassing diplomatic exchange between two powerful nations. Newly elected United States president Donald Trump was outraged by a deal with the Australian government made by his predecessor, involving the reception of 1250 refugees who are currently living on two small islands just behind Papua New Guinea.

The islands of Manus and Nauru were used by the Australian government, under the name ‘the Pacific Solution’, as open-air prisons to prevent refugees from entering the Australian mainland. The media spectacle that unravelled in February included an awkward twitter-feud and two head-of-states scolding and hanging up on each other. Along with the public embarrassment for both parties, the horrific notions about these people’s living conditions reached the bigger public too.

Since 2013 multiple whistle-blowers have been leaking documents and statements, but it took another four years until the world heard about the atrocities on the islands. The observations of these witnesses sketched an image of life in the detention facilities, including assault, sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide attempts, often including children.

European politicians and the media were shocked by these notions and condemned the Australian authorities for the cruel treatment of their refugees. The hypocrisy is undeniable, as in an overwhelming amount of European countries it is regulated by law that refugees without any criminal record can be incarcerated, in some even up to 1,5 years in prison-like circumstances.

The so-called Calais Jungle is a blatant example of how Europe has chosen to treat its refugees. The unofficial migrant camp at the border between France and UK was known for its inhumane and unhealthy living conditions and was inhabited by between 6000 and 9000 people who were trying to reach the UK. It was demolished in October 2016 because of political pressure, in an attempt to control the area. The public character of the Calais Jungle was massive, but only served as an illustration for the many mistreatments of refugees in Europe.

In Malta, refugees face a different, yet equally inhumane situation. The moment refugees set foot on the island, they are brought to a detention centre, to stay there until their asylum matters are figured out. They are imprisoned because the Maltese law, under the Immigration Act, art. 14(2), mandates that a person who enters the country without ‘right of entry’ will be designated as a ‘prohibited immigrant’ and may receive a removal order, which will land them in detention without the possibility to challenge their imprisonment.

Dyna, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, described the circumstances of her 11-months detention in Malta in 2009 as being “very crowded, with me and my husband sharing a one-person bed. We had only a half an hour a day to be outside, which was just a 40 square meter concrete slab. They never told us anything, it was a scary time”.

The 2012 ‘Boat Ride to Detention’ report by Human Rights Watch condemned the heinous circumstances refugees lived in on a daily basis in the refugee centres of Malta. HRW reported that children can be detained for months while age determination is taking place, a process to determine if unaccompanied youngsters are over the age of eighteen or not. This lengthy process can take over a year, all the while children are not being granted access to school or receiving special care regarding their young age and even experiencing abuse in these centres.

Malta is not the only example. In countries like Hungary, United Kingdom, and The Netherlands it is approved by law to immediately detain refugees without any viable reason other than arriving non-authorised. Instead of housing these people in open asylum centres, these countries choose to incarcerate thousands of newcomers in detention facilities.

While a fact-report was presented by the Dutch Council for Refugees and UNHCR, Yvonne Artis Shaw, a LGBT activist who fled Jamaica, told the audience: “I never thought that I would be locked-up in a free country like The Netherlands”.

Governments have claimed different reasons for their decisions. Maltese authorities have indicated their detention policy is in part to deter migrants from coming to Malta, while the prime minister of Hungary declared that the country is ‘under siege’ from refugees and must be protected. Both claims are highly substantiated and fail to fully argument such radical decisions as long-term prison-like detention.

Neither does cost, as it is actually calculated that it is more expensive to detain refugees, than it is to house them in open facilities. The Home Office of the UK calculated that in 2015 the daily cost of one asylum seeker in detention is ₤91,-, which is almost $3500,- a month. A 2016 report released by Safe The Children and UNICEF concluded that in a four year period, the Manus and Nauru detention facilities cost 9.6 billion dollar. Considered that around 2000 refugees lived on the islands, that comes down to approximately one million dollar per person.

There is also a human cost that cannot be underestimated. Being detained in such conditions has proved to be a mental as well as physical hazard for these people. Detention has huge impact on the mental health of migrants, negatively influencing stability and integration into society. In Malta many cases are reported of mental health issues while in detention. “I have thought of hurting myself, pouring gas over myself and lighting on fire” said an Eritrean migrant to Human Rights Watch about his mental troubles as a result of prolonged detention. Imprisonment leads to a sense of powerlessness which can provoke mental health related disabilties like nightmares, anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Numerous evidence about human rights violations is being ignored by the media and the public, and only incidentally do these practices make it to the headlines. It is important to face the reality; these things are happening in our own country and we cannot wait until the next media scandal to stand up for these people who are not able to do so themselves.

Human Rights
Femke Maurits

Femke has studied International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she specialized in WASH issues in urban settings and international development cooperation, especially North-South partnerships. She works for the Dutch Council for Refugees and she is part of a large Zero Waste project called ROUTE12. Femke has keen interest for environment issues and solutions.
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