Governments in the United States and Australia, which long have grappled with unwanted entries by unauthorized migrants and would-be asylum seekers respectively, undertook efforts in 2012 to reform immigration detention policies and procedures that have generated significant scrutiny and criticism.
The U.S. government has long been criticized by immigrant- and human-rights advocates for operating what is supposed to be a civil detention system for noncitizen detainees on a criminal incarceration model and standards. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for the detention of nearly 430,000 noncitizens in fiscal year 2011, in 2012 released new detention standards for its detention facilities. The standards, which update 2008 guidance, strengthen oversight of the process through which detainees may file grievances, expand medical and privacy protections for particularly vulnerable groups of detainees (such as the elderly, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] individuals), and provide increased access to medical care for women in ICE detention.
Also, ICE opened what it termed a civil detention facility in March 2012. The facility, located in Texas, is designed to allow detainees greater access to recreation and more unescorted freedom of movement. The new center houses an indoor gym, a library with Internet access, outdoor soccer fields, and guards — renamed "resident advisors" — who wear khakis and polo shirts, rather than traditional uniforms. All of these factors are intended to make the center feel less penal in nature.
The ICE actions, while welcomed, have not mollified critics, however. In November, 300 national and local organizations wrote President Obama asking him to shut down ten detention facilities described as having "egregious" problems. "There is an ongoing crisis in the U.S. immigration detention system: immigrants detained under the custody of the U.S. government are languishing in a system so massive and mismanaged that it has led to rampant due process and human rights abuses," wrote the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Women's Refugee Commission.
In addition to closing troubled facilities, immigrant advocates are pressing the administration to expand its use of Alternative to Detention (ATD) programs, such as electronic ankle bracelets and telephonic check-ins, in lieu of incarceration. While ICE has been expanding these ATD programs, its 2013 budget request in this area, $111.6 million, is a fraction of the more than $2.7 billion that the agency spends annually on immigration detention and removal operations.
Australia: Immigration Detention Struggles Continue
In mid-August, the Australian Parliament, with the backing of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, passed a new law aimed at reducing illegal migration, the latest policy adjustment in the country's two-decade effort to deal with an increase in refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants seeking to make a new life there. Under the new law, asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australian territorial waters — colloquially known as boat people — are detained and processed for refugee status in nearby island nations Nauru and Papua New Guinea. In addition, Australia increased its yearly refugee intake — through overseas refugee processing programs — from 13,700 to 20,000.
Australian lawmakers said they expected that the new policies will persuade hopeful migrants to apply for refugee status abroad, instead of risking the dangerous journey to reach Australian shores in makeshift boats. The new law, however, has provoked heavy criticism in advocacy and human-rights circles, and it is unclear whether this latest effort at extraterritorial processing will yield better results than earlier attempts.
The Australian government's use of Nauru is not new. First used in 2001, the detention facility was shuttered in 2007 when the Australian government suspended its "Pacific Solution," which called for offshore processing of would-be asylum seekers, amid criticism from human-rights groups over conditions there. The center was reopened in 2012 with the revival by the Gillard government of the Pacific Solution. In November, hundreds of detainees held at the Nauru detention facility launched a hunger strike to protest their treatment.
Greece's Detention and Asylum Woes
Greece accounts for a significant portion of all detections of illegal border crossings to the European Union, according to Frontex, the European Union (EU) agency responsible for external border security. As a result, the Greek asylum system has incurred a serious backlog, which has caused a large number of asylum applicants to wait for approval for years in poor detention conditions chronicled in a plethora of reports from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.
Acknowledging Greece's grim detention facilities, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in January 2011 ruled in M.S.S. vs. Belgium that returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation (which typically requires asylum seekers to be returned by EU Member States to the European country through which they first gained entry) would represent a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms as the Greek system was tantamount to inhuman and degrading treatment. Thus, effectively, no EU Member State can return asylum seekers found to have arrived in the European Union via Greece. The European Union is now negotiating a revised version of the Dublin II Regulation that would allow suspension of returns in cases of "systemic deficiencies."
Simultaneously, for returns to Greece to be possible again, detention conditions must be improved. The Greek government has committed to building 30 migrant reception centers, but progress has been slow and the government is laboring under serious fiscal austerity demands.