Over recent years, a global consensus rooted in international law has built up around the question of detaining children for immigration-related purposes which affirms that that detention of children is in all cases a violation of their rights and contravenes the principles of the best interests of the child. Several UN bodies have called upon states to end child immigration detention and put in place rights-based alternatives. Nonetheless, the current negotiations of the Common European Asylum System seem to jeopardise this progress and threaten to mainstream child immigration detention in Europe.
The Impact of child immigration detention
There is ample evidence showing the catastrophic impact of child immigration detention. Detention can have profound and lasting negative effects on children's mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It disrupts their development, increases the risk of trauma, and can lead to long-term psychological issues. Immigration detention also breaches children's human rights and is a form of violence against children.
Looking into the future, the negative impacts of child immigration detention, even for short periods, can have long-lasting consequences not only for the children directly affected by it but also for their families, communities, and society as a whole. These impacts contribute to developmental delays, family separation, intergenerational trauma, disruptions in education, increased economic cost, and other enduring repercussions that affect the whole community.
The GCM and IMRF: two steps forward…
In line with the global consensus against child immigration detention, the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) set out a bold vision in its Objective 13 (h) to “[work] to end the practice of child detention in the context of international migration.” This provision was not easily agreed and its inclusion is testament to the sustained and powerful advocacy – led by IDC and our members and allies – to ensure that the best interests of the child are kept front and centre of the discussions.
During the 2022 International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) – which was a key opportunity for governments to take stock of progress towards implementing the GCM – the issue of child immigration detention was similarly contentious. However, we also saw progress in the form of pledges from certain States including Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and Thailand when it comes to ending child immigration detention and promoting best practice. Germany pledged at the IMRF on child immigration detention and specifically not to “take children into custody pending deportation in the future” which was initially part of the Coalition Agreement.
Globally there has been some momentum in ending child immigration detention and some states such as Thailand have taken steps towards ensuring that children are not deprived of their liberty for immigration related reasons while others such as Colombia have resolutely opposed child immigration detention and ensured that it is not part of their migration management systems despite having millions of migrants and refugees within their territory.
… but one step back?
Yet, despite some progress at the global level, it is hard to remain optimistic in the context of an EU Pact on Migration and Asylum that is likely to result in an increase in detention for immigration-related reasons, including for children. The Migration and Asylum Pact introduces border procedures that involve the detention and deprivation of liberty of people that arrive via irregular routes, including families and children. Border procedures would be mandatory for those coming from countries with low asylum recognition rates, those using false documentation or those considered as a threat to national security. Children, even those below the age of 12 and accompanied by families, can be subject to detention under these border procedures, except for unaccompanied minors. This deviates from the Commission’s initial proposal and is in direct conflict with the commitment set out in the GCM adopted by the majority of EU Member States - to work towards ending immigration detention of children.
The emphasis on border procedures and mandatory detention, including for families with children, represents a very concerning prospect. The expansion of border procedure could lead to an alarming rise in detention centre populations at EU borders. This approach risks enabling pushbacks and expanding the criminalization of migration. It also raises questions about the potential establishment of new detention facilities at the EU’s external borders. Paired with increased detention measures, the Pact’s prioritisation on ending “secondary movement” and the reduction of legal safeguards, legal assistance and appeals raises significant issues of due process and protection for individuals in vulnerable situations including families and children.
The European Pact risks jeopardising the momentum on ending child immigration detention and the progress that has been achieved so far, both in normative terms and in practice. Moreover, European states could be spreading negative practices globally by scaling family and child immigration detention instead of taking leadership and ending this damaging practice once and for all.
Moving forward to end child immigration detention
In the pursuit of a world where children are treated with dignity, their human rights are respected, and their best interest is paramount, countries like Germany which have pledged to end child immigration detention must lead by example. Moreover, Germany has recently submitted its position towards child detention in a protocol note at the June meeting of EU’s Ministers of Interior where it made clear its intention to continue advocating for the rights of children and young people on the move. It is essential that these commitments extend beyond words and translates into concrete actions, including in Pact negotiations.
What we need moving forward is nothing short of bold leadership. We must take significant steps to use the current momentum to end child immigration detention and invest in secure and sustainable futures for children and youth within our communities. This means treating children as children regardless of their immigration status, allowing them to be free and ensuring their best interest is at the centre. Child immigration detention is not and will never be in the best interest of the child and it is a priority for us to bring it to an end. Let us work together to make this vision a reality and create a world where every child can enjoy a safe, dignified, and free life.
Carolina Gottardo is a feminist migrant advocate with over two decades of experience in human rights, migration, and gender work across various regions. Currently, she serves as Executive Director of the International Detention Coalition (IDC) where she leads efforts to end immigration detention. Carolina is a member of the UN Women expert group to address the human rights of women in the Global Compact for Migration, co-leads the Alternative to Detention Working Group at the UN Network on Migration and is a member of the Steering Committee of the UN Migration Multi Partner Trust Funds. Carolina also serves in different NGO boards including the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and the Women in Migration Network.
The opinions and statements expressed in the article by the guest author do not reflect the position of the editorial team or the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.