Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the modern road map for equality and freedom. It declares that all human beings are born free and equal with basic human rights. These rights include but are not limited to the rights to marry and have a family; to work and own property; to access a decent standard of living; and to freely practice one’s religion. For asylum seekers actualisation of full and equal rights hinges on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth articles which acknowledge universal rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; to leave one’s own country; and to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

The UDHR has been widely praised and outwardly accepted by modern nation states. It is ingrained in international law, and is praised as a pillar of global progress. Yet, implementation of equality and access to asylum is left up to individual nations. This is problematic as many governments have enacted laws, policies, and practices that restrict and criminalise these rights through prioritisation of security, use of detention centers, and the poor quality of holding facilities.

Legislation that Criminalises Asylum Seekers and Migrants

The ability to leave one’s country and cross into another depends heavily on the international agreements between the countries in question. The right to move freely is further complicated by access to identification documents and lengthy paperwork trails. Bureaucracy have increased with the flow of migration which is on the rise in recent years, as is fear of terrorism, and a perceived threat of migrants. To respond to increased human flow, governments across the world have prioritized approaches that criminalize the acts of migration and asylum-seeking  focusing on border security.

The US, for example, has implemented cruel “zero tolerance” policies that allow detention and remand of adults and children who cross the border illegally. In the UK the newly proposed Nationality and Borders Bill includes provisions for irregular migrants including asylum seekers “who have fled war, terror and oppression who seek refuge in the UK to be arrested and prosecuted under a new offence for arriving in the UK without a valid entry clearance”. This bill specifically targets vulnerable groups that arrive by sea who could face up to four years in prison for attempted unlawful entry.  The EU is also an example of this as some Member States increasingly use detention as a first response to national security rather than a measure of last resort. These policies increasingly restrict freedom of movement of asylum seekers insisting they come through legal channels. The ECHR and other rights groups oppose these measures and practices citing “..the basis for the attack on irregular arrival is that refugees should use safe legal routes. But there are no such safe legal routes. There is no such thing as a refugee visa.”

“Terrible” Conditions of Detention

Detention of asylum seekers and migrants has become standard procedure in much of the global north. Rights activists continually flag it as an issue of growing concern due to conditions of centers and the length of detainment which can range from a matter of days to extreme cases of one to two years.

In September 2020, local Maltese media shared a video showing asylum-seekers detained for a year in Safi Dentention Centre, begging to be sent home and sharing their experience “of living in overcrowded dormitories where they say a lack of hygiene, medical attention and nutritious food has led to deteriorating mental and physical health as well as suicide attempts”. A protest turned riot at this center soon followed, resulting in the shooting of an asylum seeker. Organizers of the September protest were criminally charged and imprisoned.  A later Asylum Information Database (Aida) study of this center reported asylum seekers were often detained for months without any information or ability to contact the outside world. The report also found that there was inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities with little to no privacy for detainees. Migrants and asylum seekers were also exposed to extreme temperatures due to lack of proper heating or ventilation. They termed the conditions of detainees as “terrible”. 

Other country reports stated similar conditions. In Greece monitors reported that “far  too  many  of  the  places  being  used  to  detain  migrants  offered conditions of detention which are an affront to human dignity.” While conditions in other countries are better, issues still persist. In France 20 civil society organisations sent an open letter to the Minister of the Interior, raising concerns about the increasing number of suicides, hunger strikes and self-harm in immigration detention centres; the increase in the occupancy rate of the centres; and the difficulties in accessing care, especially psychiatric care. Similar reports can be found on detention centers in most EU countries. Additional studies also show a common trend in migration centers and the adverse effect they have on the mental health of detainees. Due to the serious conditions in which they are detained and the repeated violation they are suffering from have driven immigrants to the brink of suicide as it has been highlighted by several intergovernmental agencies.

Final Thoughts

Migration legislation and detention centers restrict and often deny basic human rights to asylum seekers and migrants. These systems oppress vulnerable groups and keep them detained in deplorable conditions for extended periods of time: the conditions of facilities frequently do more harm than good and negatively affect the mental health of detainees. This is why international lawmakers must reconsider the mechanisms of border control and decriminalise those who seek it.