UN refugee agency issues new guidelines on detention of asylum-seekers

UN refugee agency issues new guidelines on detention of asylum-seekers

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[JURIST] The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) [official website] on Friday issued new international guidelines [materials, PDF; press release] regarding the detention of asylum-seekers. The new guidelines were presented amid statements of concern over the growing use of detention in a number of countries as global asylum claims have risen [UN News Centre report] over the last few years, with 441,300 claims recorded in 2011 where the previous year saw only 368,000. The UNHCR issued the new guidelines as part of an effort to promote alternatives to detention such as surrender of documentation, periodic reporting to authorities, directed residence or residence at free-movement asylum centers, bail or bond requirements, and community supervision arrangements. As the UNHCR opposes all forms of detention of non-criminal immigrant refugees and other migrant non-refugees who seek international protection, the new guidelines begin by making clear that seeking asylum is not a criminal act and those who seek it should not be detained:

Every person has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution, serious human rights violations and other serious harm. Seeking asylum is not, therefore, an unlawful act. Furthermore, the 1951 Convention [relating to the Status of Refugees] provides that asylum-seekers shall not be penalised for their illegal entry or stay, provided they present themselves to the authorities without delay and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

The guidelines go on to state that any detention is an exceptional measure that must be in accordance with national law, that such detention laws must be crafted so as to prescribe foreseeable and predictable consequences, that unlawful and arbitrary detentions are guarded against by international law, that detention must be neither discriminatory nor indefinite, and that detention conditions must be human and dignified.

Laws and policies governing the treatment of migrants continue to raise international human rights concerns. Last month the UNHCR and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights [official website] together expressed concern over a recently passed law in Australia [JURIST report] that will reopen offshore detention centers used to process migrants and asylum-seekers who arrive in the country by sea. In July Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] reported that migrants residing in Greece face a rising culture of discrimination and violence [JURIST report]. In June Amnesty International [advocacy website] stated that the Cyprus government’s practice of detaining all illegal migrants seeking asylum in the island nation violates international law [JURIST report].