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United Nations: Global Strategy to End Detention of Refugees Includes Suggested Legal Reforms

(July 10, 2014) On July 3, 2014, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a global strategy designed to encourage countries to end the detention of asylum-seekers, refugees, and stateless persons who arrive at their borders. The strategy is in response to the fact that, as the UNHCR observed, many nations now routinely detain such persons, and such detention has “serious lasting effects on individuals and families,” particularly children. (Press Release, UNHCR, UNHCR Calls for End to Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees (July 3, 2014).) The new initiative will run for five years, from June 2014-June 2019. (Id.)

The UNHCR Director of International Protection, Volker Turk, noted that “[s]eeking asylum is lawful and the exercise of a fundamental right.” (Id.) He added that routinely detaining asylum-seekers, who are in need of protection, should be avoided and that the UNHCR is willing to work with countries to reach their goals. The UNHCR stated that it “recognises that irregular entry or stay presents many challenges to countries, but detaining people is not the answer. UNHCR recommends that people seeking asylum be properly received, [and be] allowed freedom of movement and access to services in the community.” (Id.)

The strategy refers to three main goals: ending the detention of children, ensuring that alternatives to detention are available in law and practice, and making conditions of any detention deemed necessary meet international standards. (UNHCR, BEYOND DETENTION (2014) at 7.) Regarding the legal reforms desired, the strategy document elaborates changes needed at the national level, including:

· having both legal and policy frameworks that include alternatives to immigration detention;
· putting in place procedures to assess “the necessity, reasonableness and proportionality” of detention on a case-by-case basis;
· creating mechanisms to screen asylum-seekers;
· making sure that there are a variety of alternatives available, including such things as community placement; and
· having the choice among those alternatives to detention be determined based on consideration of the circumstances of persons with special needs or vulnerabilities, such as children. (Id. at 19.)

The UNHCR intends to work with government authorities to develop national action plans that will include “awareness-raising, capacity-building, strengthening partnerships, information sharing, data collection and reporting, research and monitoring.” (Press Release, supra.) Hungary, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Zambia have been identified as the countries with which the UNHCR intends to begin this work. (Id.) These focus countries will be expected to report on their progress at the end of two years and again after five years; the reports will be consolidated to create a single global report at each time. (BEYOND DETENTION, supra, at 17.)

The UNHCR is not the only body taking action recently on the question of asylum, with a focus on children. The European Commission has amended its rules on the procedures for asylum-seekers, to clarify the situation of child applicants. (Theresa Papademetriou, European Union: New Rules on Unaccompanied Minors Entering the EU Illegally, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (July 9, 2014).)