The use of detention and alternatives to detention in the context of immigration policies in Belgium (EMN)

This focused study examines the use of detention and alternatives to detention in the context of immigration policies in Belgium.

The Belgian report is part of an EMN focused study to identify similarities, differences and best practices between EU countries with regard to the use of detention and alternatives to detention in the context of immigration policies.

The study comprises:

  • An overview of recent developments in the Belgian return policy (section 1);

  • A focus on the use of immigration detention in Belgium (sections 2, 3 and 4);

  • A focus on the use of alternatives to detention in Belgium, with main focus on the use of specific family units (sections 5 and 6);

  • A section on the impact of detention and alternatives to detention on the effectiveness of procedures, in terms of costs, respect for fundamental rights and rates of absconding and complience (section 6)

  • Summary and conclusions

The use of detention in the context of immigration policies

In Belgium, there are five detention facilities spread over the country with a capacity of approximately 521 places. In 2013, 6285 persons were held in a detention facility. There are also a few smaller detention facilities at the regional airports to maintain inadmissible passengers.

The study describes among others the categories of foreigners that can be detained, the assessment procedures (including on vulnerability) and gives an overview of rights and obligations of the persons placed in detention. Challenges and good practices are identified.

The use of alternatives to detention, mainly the family units

Belgian law forbids the detention of unaccompanied minors. Detention of families with minor children remains legally possible, as an ultimate measure, for a short period and in a place adapted to the needs of children. The modalities of this detention are not further specified by the law. At the moment families are only held in family units, which is an alternative to detention that was put in place in October 2008. Families are accommodated in state-owned individual housing (apartments or houses which are furnished and equipped) for the time necessary for their identification and to prepare their return. They are free to move with some restrictions (e.g. one member of the family should stay in the house at all times). The families are closely assisted by a case manager/coach of the Immigration Office. Since October 2009, both irregularly staying families and families claiming asylum at the border are brought to the family units. The specially adapted units inside the area of a detention facility do not exist yet, due to budgetary reasons.

By the end of 2013, there were 23 family units in 5 different locations (approximately 135 beds). In 2013, 590 persons from 159 families were held in a family unit.

Another alternative to detention for irregularly staying families with minor children concerns the follow-up of these families by a coach in their own houses. This measure is very new and has so far only been used for a very limited number of families. Other alternatives like reporting obligations and the obligation to surrender a copy of the passport, are embedded in the law, but are not (yet) applied in practice.

Detention versus alternative detention (the family units)

From a fundamental rights point of view, the approach in the family units is seen as a lot more humane and adapted to the needs of children and families. This is an overall conclusion made by the authorities, by NGO’s, international authorities and in studies analyzing the experiences of the migrants themselves.

In terms of costs, the family units are obviously cheaper than the detention facilities. The average daily cost to hold a person for one day in a family unit is 30% to 50% cheaper than holding a person for one day in a detention facility.

When looking at effectiveness, absconding rate and compliance rate, a more complex picture needs to be drawn. The absconding rate remains an issue of concern: around 25% of the families in the family units abscond versus less than 1% of the persons in the detention facilities. The compliance rate is therefore 77% (family units) versus 99% (detention). When looking at the success rate of departures (the percentage of people who departed): 40% successfully departed from the family units versus 79% from the detention facilities.

As a whole, Belgian authorities positively evaluate the family units. However, the absconding rate is an issue of concern and solutions have to be found to decrease this rate. Still, the responsible Secretary of State expressed preference for the solution of the family units with this relatively high absconding rate more than having to detain minors and their families in facilities that are not adapted to their needs. The Secretary of State does wants to create the special family units inside the area of a detention facility as a measure of last resort. However, at the moment this is not yet the case (no political consensus) and non-governmental organisations are clearly opposed to any measure aimed at detaining minors.

Publication Date:
Wed 02 Jul 2014
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