Towards ending immigration detention of children

Migrant children are first and foremost children, and under international law children should never be detained based on their migration status or at all in the immigration context. In the European Union (EU), this principle has been laid down in legislative instruments and policies regarding migrant children, that clearly set out the obligation to avoid any form of detention of children due to their immigration status.

Detention has severe negative impacts on children’s lives, on their mental and physical health and well-being, and has serious long-term consequences. Despite this, in a number of EU Member States children are still being systematically detained for immigration purposes; in many others, children and families with children are subject to coercive measures that restrict their freedoms and largely disregard the best interests of the child.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)  and partners (aditus foundation in Malta, Foundation for Access to Rights in Bulgaria, the Greek Council for Refugees, Defence for Children International – Belgium, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and ASGI in Italy) have over the last two years worked together on the CADRE project (Children’s Alternatives to Detention protecting their Rights in Europe) in order to address this situation and to bring the realities for many children closer to the standards required by EU and international human rights law. The overall goal of the project has been to raise awareness amongst practitioners of the international human rights law obligation to use alternatives to detention (ATD) and to refrain from detaining migrant children, and to explore and help put in practice effective and viable rights-based alternatives to detention for migrant children.

Best practice and key outcomes of the project

The project partners agreed from early on that the best practices to be recommended are rooted in case management and the integration of migrant children into mainstream child protection systems. Placing a migrant child in a country’s mainstream child protection system is most likely to result in a high level of compliance with the human rights of the child, protected under international human rights law as well as EU law. These include the rights to family life, education, health, play, and protection against ill-treatment. The UN Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families, the supervisory body of the International Convention on the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families, understands as ATD all community-based care measures or non-custodial accommodation solutions – in law, policy or practice – that do not involve detention.

The project partners agreed from early on that the best practices to be recommended are rooted in case management and the integration of migrant children into mainstream child protection systems.

At the early stages of the project, the ICJ and partners mapped the existing situation when it comes to detention of children in partner countries. The organisations held three closed expert workshops focusing on different aspects of alternatives to detention for children. Throughout the workshops, participants considered the feasibility of introducing alternatives to detention in national systems, and explored a number of good practice examples from across the EU.

Project partners subsequently convened webinars focusing on the possible challenges and obstacles in implementing alternatives to detention. One webinar also looked into the on-going negotiations about the EU Pact on migration, which also includes recommendations to use alternatives to detention, while introducing mandatory border procedures and not exempting children in all cases. Another webinar looked closely at the EU Child guarantee – a strong commitment by EU Member States towards all children, including migrant children regardless of their status – to secure their rights, such as free healthcare, education, healthy nutrition, and adequate housing.

As an outcome  of a series of expert workshops, the ICJ also published a set of Training Materials on Alternatives to Detention for Migrant Children. The first training module covers the international and EU legal framework of ATD for children and related rights. The second gathers specific good practice examples of alternatives, such as case management or placement of migrant children into mainstream child protection systems. Module III details the right to be heard and procedural rights of children, and module IV covers communication with children in this context. The training modules are aimed at national judges, lawyers, State executive authorities, guardians of children, social workers, and other practitioners and are available in six languages (English, French, Dutch, Greek, Bulgarian and Polish).

One particular example of good practice highlighted within the materials is an ongoing pilot project for families in Belgium (Plan Together: towards durable solutions) which is implemented by the Jesuit Refugee Service Belgium, a member of the European Alternatives to Detention Network. The project offers community-based alternatives to detention to families with children, supporting them on a legal, social and psychological level to work towards a sustainable future.  The project starts with screening and selection and involves initial basic actions to build trust, regular home visits, monthly team meetings with the immigration office, legal screening, individual plans of action, impact assessment, and ultimately case closure. Regular home-based counselling stands in place of and prevents a deprivation of liberty of the family. 

The ICJ and partners have also created a case-law database with national case-law from Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Malta and Belgium, as well as relevant international law sources and case-law. Short summaries of each case can provide a snapshot of the case-law in another EU country and may serve to provide inspiration and useful sources for their own litigation work.

Throughout the second phase of the project, national partners launched the publication of training materials nationally and have held trainings for various practitioners in five EU Member States. Over two hundred people were directly trained or involved in advocacy meetings, module launches, and discussions. There seems to be more and more awareness of the need to address the issue of detention of migrant children and to implement non-coercive, engagement-based alternatives to detention. The project results have created important tools for lawyers and other experts in the field and are expected to make a significant contribution towards ending immigration detention of children.


Written by Karolína Babická (Legal Adviser, International Commission of Jurists – Europe and Central Asia Programme). The ICJ implemented the CADRE project (Children’s Alternatives to Detention protecting their Rights in Europe) from 2021-2023, aimed at promoting the end of child migrant detention in Europe. You can find here the training materials and case-law database created as part of the project.

“Black Holes”: CILD’s report reveals human rights violations in Italy’s immigration detention centres

In late 2021, the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (Coalizione Italiana Libertà e Diritti Civili, CILD) published its first ever report on Italy’s immigration detention centres – Black Holes: Detention without charge in Repatriation Centres for Migrants – Centri di Permanenza per i Rimpatri (CPRs).

This report provides extensive analysis of the conditions experienced by those held inside Italy’s 10 immigration detention centres (CPRs), where people are deprived of their liberty for months on end. The experience of detention is akin to imprisonment, but without the guarantees and due process offered by the criminal justice system, and without any evidence of those detained presenting any threat to public safety. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Italian Government and the private entities managing the centres are obliged to ensure respect for the human dignity of those detained, the reality is that fundamental rights within CPRs are either neglected or completely denied. There is also a concerning lack of transparency and accountability, with very little information about these centres made public.

In this context, “Black Holes” intends to provide an overview of the current state of affairs regarding immigration detention in Italy, including insight into the origin and nature of CPRs, as well as the living conditions experienced by people in detention. CILD examines the need for protection of fundamental rights, exposing a number of suicides, deaths, and episodes of self harm that have taken place in CPRs in recent years. The report also includes data on the economic costs of CPRs, as well as information about their management.

CILD’s aim in publishing this report is to shine light where there is none, where there are no spotlights or cameras – places that would truly be black holes if community and civil society organisations did not work to uncover the truth of what happens within them.

Alongside the report, CILD has launched a website dedicated to immigration detention issues, which showcases interviews with the report authors and other experts.

Administrative Detention in Italy: A Background

Immigration detention in Italy dates back more than two decades. Introduced in 1998 as a “non-criminal” detention practice, its purpose was to hold foreign or third-country nationals prior to their repatriation for as long as necessary in order to enable identification and expulsion procedures. Since then, immigration detention has been a constant element in Italian migration management policies, more recently legitimised by the European Union with the introduction of the Return Directive of 2008.

CPRs were established with the introduction of the Turco-Napolitano Law. While the maximum detention period was initially set at 30 days, it gradually increased – first to 60 days (Law no.189/2002), then to 180 days (Law no. 125/2008) and, finally, to 18 months (Decree-Law no. 89/2011). Since 2011, time limits have once again decreased – with a brief rise as a result of the so-called “Salvini Decree” from 2018 to 2020 – and currently the maximum limit for immigration detention is 90 days.

While the time limit for immigration detention has varied considerably over recent years, the same cannot be said of repatriation rates which have remained consistently low. Given that the facilitation of return is one of the main stated aims of detention in Italy, these low rates put into question the use of detention as a migration management policy. In fact, as noted by the National Guarantor for the Rights of Persons Deprived of their Liberty (National Guarantor), it appears that the effectiveness of detention in ensuring repatriation remains steadily low regardless of the length of detention. Moreover, these consistently low rates suggest that detention is in fact an ineffective tool to facilitate returns. As shown in the below table, the rate of repatriation of those in detention in 2020 was 50.1%; in previous years it has remained relatively steady, never going above 59%. 

The ineffectiveness of Italy’s return policy is even more obvious if we consider the figures for the total number of repatriations, including not only people held in immigration detention centres but also those pushed back at the border or forcibly accompanied to the border in Italy. According to data provided by the National Guarantor, 3,351 people were repatriated in 2020 out of 517,000 undocumented migrants present in Italy. Considering these numbers, the National Guarantor has affirmed that it is time to rethink administrative detention as a whole, rather than seeking to individually resolve the numerous shortcomings of the detention estate in a piecemeal way.

Immigration Detention Centres and Fundamental Human Rights

While the effectiveness of the Italian Government’s migration governance already indicates a need to rethink the systematic use of immigration detention, for CILD the core concern lies with the erosion of freedom and dignity that accompanies the detention system, and the various and compounding situations of injustice experienced by those who are detained.

In “Black Holes”, CILD documents a number of illegal practices taking place in immigration detention centres, particularly regarding detention conditions. For example, the report draws attention to the complete lack of assessment of migrants detained in the centres, despite requirements for the judicial authority to determine the impacts that detention might have on each individual depending on their specific circumstances and vulnerabilities. Ninety percent of the immigration lawyers interviewed by CILD stated that in most cases there is no certificate of eligibility for detention in the judicial authority’s files. In addition, provisions for the right to health within CPRs are not of an adequate standard. Healthcare is managed by private entities which are entrusted to the managing entity of the centres, not to the National Health Service. In such conditions, the detention of those with serious physical, mental or emotional health needs is entirely inappropriate.

With respect to the right to information and defence, the report reveals that people detained are not consistently provided the right to participate in hearings regarding their own detention. Further, such hearings are meant to determine the validity or extension of a person’s detention, and typically last a questionable 5 to 10 minutes. Several critical points were also identified in CILD’s research  concerning the appointment of lawyers, as well as the unreliable timing of communications to lawyers regarding legal hearings related to their client’s detention. For instance, in some centres, people in detention are prevented from communicating with their lawyers until the validation hearing has already taken place. According to a number of lawyers interviewed by CILD, this unlawful practice is intended to essentially provide a rubber stamp for validation procedures, with little regard for the facts of individual cases: “not having a trusted lawyer who knows the history of the individual detainee and who also has the possibility to produce a series of defensive documents, makes the whole validation process of the Justice of the Peace much faster [and] much more streamlined.”

The findings of “Black Holes” show that CPRs are places where people who have been deemed “guilty of travel”, but of no actual crime, are cruelly deprived of their personal liberty and their basic fundamental human rights.

The 44 Million Euro Price Tag of the Immigration Detention Estate

Today, Italy runs 10 CPRs in Turin, Milan, Gradisca d’Isonzo, Rome – Ponte Galeria, Palazzo San Gervasio, Macomer, Bari, Brindisi, Trapani and Caltanissetta. Over the past three years, these centres have cost Italian taxpayers upwards of 44 million euro. Further to this overwhelming financial burden on Italian society, this money has largely gone in the pockets of private companies managing CPRs across Italy. During this period, the average expenditure to detain one person was around 1000 euros per day. For a detention centre that holds 400 people, this means a cost of 40,150 euros per day. This represents a staggering waste of public money, which only benefits the for-profit companies that administer CPRs. For them, depriving people on the move of their freedom and dignity, is a business that has become a “very profitable supply chain.”

The reality is that Italy’s immigration detention centres are truly black holes, where basic human rights are violated in secret, without transparency or accountability. These places are also legal black holes, as numerous principles that form the very foundation of Italy’s  domestic and international legal system are breached with impunity on a regular basis.

Over the past three years, these centres have cost Italian taxpayers upwards of 44 million euro. Further to this overwhelming financial burden on Italian society, this money has largely gone in the pockets of private companies managing CPRs across Italy.

Black holes such as this are a stain on our society’s respect for human life, dignity and due process, and it is not only those who are detained who suffer, but also their families and entire communities.  It is in the interest of all citizens and the people of Italy to demand that inhumane, oppressive and excessively costly detention does not continue in our name. There are proven and effective alternatives to managing migration that ensure dignity, humanity and freedom, while also prioritising the growth and future of our society as a whole. These alternative solutions can help Italy overcome this failing administration detention system, which seems more necessary now than ever before.


Written by Flaminia Delle Cese (Legal and Policy Officer, Coalizione Italiana Libertà e Diritti Civili). CILD is a member of the International Detention Coalition and the European ATD Network. Along with Progetto Diritti, CILD runs a pilot ATD project in Italy providing holistic case management to migrants to risk of detention. Find out more here.

The Action Access Alternative to Detention Pilot: Evaluating the success of community-based support

An independent evaluation of the pioneering pilot project delivered by European ATD Network member Action Foundation and funded by the UK Home Office has found it is more humane and significantly less expensive to support  women in vulnerable situations in the community as an alternative to keeping them in detention centres. In this blog, Action Foundation Chief Executive Duncan McAuley summarises the pilot, its aims, and the findings of the evaluation.

In 2018, the UK Government published the Shaw Progress Report, a follow-up to the Review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons produced by Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probations Ombudsperson for England and Wales. Amongst other recommendations, the progress review urged the UK Government to “demonstrate much greater energy in its consideration of alternatives to detention.” Shortly after its publication, the Government announced the creation of a Community Engagement pilot (CEP) Series, which set out to test approaches to supporting people to resolve their immigration cases in the community.

Action Access: a civil society-government partnership

Following a successful bid process, Action Foundation – which had played a key role in the advocacy efforts that led to the introduction of the CEP – was granted the contract for the first of the four pilots, and our Alternative to Detention (ATD) project was born. The Action Access pilot ran between 2019 and 2021 and supported 20 women seeking asylum in a community setting in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North East of England. With one exception, prior to joining the pilot all of the women had been detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

Upon joining the pilot, the women were provided with shared accommodation, received one-to-one support from Action Foundation staff, and were supported to access legal counselling. Although it wasn’t a requirement of the pilot, the women also benefited from Action Foundation’s broader program of activity such as its free English language classes and weekly community gatherings, facilitating socialisation, signposting and referrals.

The pilot was framed around five pillars of support:

  1. Personal stability: achieving a position of stability (in relation to, for example, housing, subsistence and safety) from which people are able to make difficult, life-changing decisions;
  2. Reliable information: providing and ensuring access to accurate, comprehensive, personally relevant information on UK immigration and asylum law;
  3. Community support: providing and ensuring access to consistent pastoral and community support, addressing the need to be heard and the need to discuss their situation with independent and familiar people;
  4. Active engagement: giving people an opportunity to engage with immigration services and ensuring that they feel able to connect and engage at the right level, enabling greater awareness of their immigration status, upcoming events and deadlines with routine personal contact fostering compliance; and
  5. Prepared futures: being able to plan for the future, finding positive ways forward, developing skills in line with their immigration objectives, identifying opportunities to advance ambitions. Through this approach, the pilot hopes to provide more efficient, humane and cost-effective case resolution for migrants and asylum seekers, by supporting migrants to make appropriate personal immigration decisions.

The model was innovative in a number of ways. The combination of a holistic approach to case management with comprehensive legal support, for instance, was integral to the delivery of the pilot and seen to make case resolution more likely. In addition, although there have been other examples of ATD in the UK, including an ongoing project run by Detention Action, Action Access was the first time that such a pilot had been built from a formal civil society-government partnership.  The relationship between many parts of the Home Office and civil society are often tense, and the pilot represented a leap of faith. But we found the experience of working with the Home Office Community Engagement Team a really positive and productive one. There was a genuine collaborative relationship between the Home Office, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Action Foundation and this unique partnership demonstrates a model of working that is both dynamic and effective. Importantly, it demonstrates the success possible if the Home Office is willing to replicate this approach in the future.

Evaluating the pilot’s success: Improved wellbeing and reduced costs

The findings of the pilot were officially published in late January by UNHCR, who had commissioned the evaluation. The report, entitled Evaluation of the Action Access Pilot, was researched and compiled by Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). Commenting on the effectiveness of the pilot, NatCen’s report states:

“Our evaluation found qualitative evidence that participants experienced more stability and better health and wellbeing outcomes whilst being supported by Action Access in the community than they had received while in detention. Evidence from this pilot suggests that these outcomes were achievable without decreasing compliance with the immigration system.”

The evaluation said this provided “a more humane and less stressful environment for pilot participants to engage in the legal review and make decisions about their future, compared with immigration detention. Even when those decisions were difficult and participants had no legal case to remain in the UK, the pilot gave the participants space and time to engage with their immigration options.”

The more humane environment was a repeated theme shared with researchers, with one of the participants saying, “In detention, you don’t have this kind of positive atmosphere. You just want to cry. You just want to stop eating. You just want to kill yourself. This is because you are so in trouble there, right. Then, when you come out, it’s like everything is going to be nice again… the atmosphere is very different, and I think you recover yourself.”

The evaluation of Action Access also suggests that keeping people in the community is much less expensive than holding an individual in detention. The report states that the potential savings could be less than half the cost of detention, in line with Action Foundation’s own calculations.

Next steps: Introducing ATD as ‘business as usual’?

While Action Access may have come to an end, Action Foundation continues to work according to the same model: combining one-to-one case management with comprehensive legal advice in order to ensure that people are able to resolve their cases in the community. We continue to believe that this type of community-based support is the best way of supporting people going through the migration system and can be used effectively instead of detention.

As for the UK Government’s next steps, it remains to be seen what will come of the CEP Series in practice. A second pilot is already underway, run by the King’s Arms Project, however there have been no confirmations that the CEP series will continue beyond this.

The seven recommendations made in the Action Access evaluation, all of which the Home Office has accepted, included a call for them to “accelerate the introduction of effective aspects of the ATD programme into the Home Office’s ‘business as usual’ model.” We hope to see progress on this, and the upcoming International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) could be the perfect context to pledge to take action. In the UK as is the case elsewhere, there’s a growing need for a change of direction and a rethinking of the approach to migration management – particularly when it comes to immigration detention. We hope our pilot, and the evidence that has emerged from it, can contribute to those necessary changes.

Written by Duncan McAuley (Chief Executive, Action Foundation). Photo by @scenebySimone on Twitter. Find out more about the Action Access pilot here and here.