Asylum Seekers Are Locked Up Worldwide


Australia is not alone in its elaborate and expensive offshore processing and detention centres. Many other industrialised countries grapple with the enormous increase of asylum seekers, an anxious local population and their obligations to international refugee and human rights law. Their focus on border security and populist anti-asylum policies may win elections but, just like in Australia, are doing little to stop the continued flow of human beings seeking refuge.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has spent $73 billion in border protection in his first term and that could possibly increase by another $4.5 billion in the near future. Despite using the latest tracking technology (which includes surveillance drones) and more than 20,000 border patrol personnel, a report from the Council on Foreign Relations reported 400,000 undocumented immigrants were deported in 2011, up from 281,000 five years earlier. Bloomberg puts the figure higher, at one million.

The use of detention has been widely criticised. Human rights organisations, including the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have frequently warned against jail-like detention centres due to the mistreatment and trauma endured by asylum seekers.

Unlike in Australia, the US does not automatically place all asylum seekers in detention. A risk classification assessment tool is used by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) to determine who should be detained. The US has 33,400 beds in detention centres around the country, but in 2011 alone the US received 83,400 claims — the majority are living amongst the community. 

Julia Brooks, Martina Bunk and Leïla Haddouche, writing in Humanity in Action note that asylum seekers go through a convoluted legal process in order to prove their claim. Asylum claims must be processed within a year of arriving in the United States. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also raised concerns that the US government's “broad criminal and terrorism-related bars” are denying legitimate claims to refugee status.

According to the Global Detention Project Canada is one of the only nations to use “prisons to confine non-citizens in administrative detention, where immigration detainees tend to be mixed with the regular prison population.” However the length of detention is on average 25 days and the actual amount of detainees (9,000) represents a fraction of asylum seekers (32,643).

Canada only accepts around 38 per cent of refugee claimants (refugees who apply to be recognised once inside their host country), less than countries like Australia and the Netherlands. Refugees are offered a wide range of services and government and non-government support.

With the culmination of civil wars in Africa, political crackdowns in the Arab region post-Spring, the devastation of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability in the Central Asian region and economic hardship in the Balkans, Europe has become a popular destination for many refugees. A report on asylum trends from the UNHCR found that Europe experienced the largest increase in rates of asylum seekers for 2012 – 355,500 claims in 38 different countries, with Germany alone receiving 64,500 – a 41 per cent jump since 2011.

The growing influx of refugees has prompted the European Union to create an elaborate and expensive border protection organisation, the European Agency for the Management of External Borders (Frontex). Created in 2004, Frontex's budget is around €87 million.

Since its implementation Frontex has been widely criticised for its mistreatment of asylum seekers. A Human Rights Watch report found that Frontex has been involved in stopping boats from landing on European soil, notably in Spain’s Canary Islands and in Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABIT) in Greece that forcibly stop asylum entries from Turkey.

Amnesty International reported that there have been cases where various European countries have not rescued distressed boats at sea. One such case took place in March 2011, where a boat of 72 African refugees, including two babies, was left to drift in the Mediterranean Sea after fuel ran out. The crew was able to make a call through a satellite phone and they were visited by a military helicopter and military vessels but they were not rescued. After two weeks without much food or water, only nine survived – some had committed suicide.

Detention centres and camps are common throughout Europe with living standards varying depending on the country. Germany has set up detention camps in rural areas; Nostorf-Horst in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is called “Guantanamo” by detainees. Dialika Krahe reports in Spiegel online the conditions resemble that of a prison. A number of detainees have gone on hunger-strike. It also appears that many asylum seekers are churned through multiple nations' asylum processes in various European cities before their claims are settled.

Australia does not have a monopoly on prison-like detention centres. We do have the distinction of having one of the smallest number of lodged asylum seeker claims in the western world (15,800), and of attempting to legislate the circumnavigation of asylum seekers to an ill-prepared developing country.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.