Monday, 21 July 2014

The EU Returns Directive and the Use of Prisons for Detaining Migrants in Europe

Izabella Majcher, Researcher at Global Detention ProjectGlobal Migration Centre and PhD candidate in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies is Geneva.

Can immigration detainees be held in prisons? Can they be confined alongside ordinary prisoners? Last Thursday 17 July 2014, in its decisions on the joint cases of Bero & Bouzalmate (C-473/13 & C-514/13) and the case of Pham (C-474/13), the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) rendered its opinion on this practice. These judgments are the ninth and tenth times that the Court has interpreted the provisions of the EU Returns Directive, the previous one being the Mahdi case, which was decided in early June 2014.

Most of the Luxembourg case law on the Returns Directive has dealt with pre-removal detention. The Court has ruled on the length of detention (Kadzoev case), the relation between (administrative) pre-removal detention and criminal incarceration (El Dridi and Achughbabian cases), detention during asylum procedures (Arslan case), and procedural standards on reviewing and extending detention (G&R and Mahdi cases). In the Bero & Bouzalmate and Pham cases, the Court interpreted the Directive’s provisions on conditions of detention for the first time.

Questions referred to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling
The questions referred to the CJEU addressed the places used for detention in Germany. It is regulated under article 16(1) of the Returns Directive, which provides that:
“Detention shall take place as a rule in specialized detention facilities. Where a Member State cannot provide accommodation in a specialized detention facility and is obliged to resort to prison accommodation, the third-country nationals in detention shall be kept separated from ordinary prisoners.”

All three requests for a preliminary ruling concerned pre-removal detention carried out in prison rather than a specialized immigration detention facility. Ms. Bero was detained alongside ordinary prisoners in Frankfurt prison (in Hesse federated state) for almost a month, while Mr. Bouzalmate was confined in a separate area devoted to immigration detention in Munich prison (in Bavaria federated state) for three months.

In Germany, immigration detention falls under the competency of federated states (Länder). The reason Ms. Bero and Mr. Bouzalmate were confined in jails was that Hesse and Bavaria federated states (and several others) do not dispose of special immigration detention centers. Such practice is based on the German Residence Act. Its section 62a(1), which transposed article 16(1) of the Directive, sets out that:
“As a general principle, custody awaiting deportation shall be enforced in specialized detention facilities. If a Land has no specialized detention facilities, custody awaiting deportation may be enforced in other custodial institutions in that Land; in such cases the persons in detention awaiting deportation shall be accommodated separately from prisoners serving criminal sentences.”

In the joint cases of Bero & Bouzalmate, the referring courts asked the CJEU to determine whether under article 16(1) of the Returns Directive a member state is required, as a rule, to detain non-citizens pending removal in a specialized detention facility if such facilities exist in only part of the federated states of that member state (Bero & Bouzalmate, § 13 and 21).
Likewise, the Pham case concerned a pre-removal detention of over three-months being carried out in prison. However, Ms. Pham signed a written declaration in which she consented to being confined in a prison together with ordinary prisoners because she allegedly wanted contact with her compatriots who were detained there. The German Federal Court of Justice referred to the Luxembourg judges a question whether it is consistent with article 16(1) of the Returns Directive to confine a migration detainee together with ordinary prisoners if they consent to such accommodation (Pham, §13).

The CJEU’s decisions
In both judgments the Court followed the Advocate General Bot's Opinion delivered at the end of April 2014. Accordingly, a member state cannot rely on the fact that there are no specialized detention facilities in a part of its territory to justify keeping non-citizens in prison pending their removal (Bero & Bouzalmate). The same rule applies even if the migration detainee has consented to being confined in penitentiary (Pham).

In the joint cases of Bero & Bouzalmate the Court held that article 16(1) of the Return Directive requires a member state, as a rule, to detain migrants pending removal in a specialized detention facility even if the member state has a federal structure and the federated state competent to decide upon and carry out such detention under domestic law does not have such a detention facility (Bero & Bouzalmate, § 33). This conclusion was based principally on two arguments.

At the outset, the Court observed that the first sentence of article 16(1) sets out the principle that pre-removal detention is to take place in specialized detention facilities. The use of prisons allowed under the second sentence of article 16(1) represents a derogation from that principle, which, as such, shall be interpreted strictly (Bero & Bouzalmate, §25).

The interpretation of that second sentence was focused on in the Opinion of the Advocate General. The Advocate General observed that there were significant differences in the wording of article 16(1) between the different language versions. Pursuant to the English version, migrants may be held in prisons if member states cannot provide accommodation in a specialized centre. In contrast, the German version allows member states to use prisons if there are no specialized facilities. According to the Advocate General, the German version of the second sentence of article 16(1) was incorrect. It would allow states to rely on the lack of specialized facilities to derogate from the principle laid down in the first sentence and thus deprive it of all effectiveness (AG’s Opinion, § 63-80).

Secondly, the Court addressed the federal structure of the country. It held that the obligation laid down in the first sentence of article 16(1) requiring detention to take place as a rule in specialized detention facilities is imposed upon member states as such, regardless of the states’ internal administrative or constitutional structures. Thus, the fact that in certain federated states of the member state, the competent authorities have specialized facilities at their disposal cannot amount to sufficient transposition of the Returns Directive if the competent authorities of another federated state of that member state lack such facilities (Bero & Bouzalmate, §30).

The Court’s conclusions in Bero & Bouzalmate were further developed in the case of Pham. The Court ruled that the second sentence of article 16(1) of the Directive does not allow member states to detain migrants pending removal in prison together with ordinary prisoners even if they consent thereto (Pham, § 24).

More precisely, in the case where the derogation in the second sentence of article 16(1) applies, i.e. where a member state cannot provide accommodation in specialized detention facilities and resorts to prison, immigration detainees shall be kept separated from ordinary prisoners. The Luxembourg judges observed that under the Directive, the obligation for migration detainees to be kept separated from ordinary prisoners is not coupled with any exception. Moreover, they stressed that the separation requirement is more than just a specific procedural rule for carrying out detention in prisons and constitutes a substantive condition for that detention, without compliance of which such detention would, in principle, not be consistent with the Directive (Pham, § 17, 19 and 21).

Ever since the adoption of the Returns Directive in 2008, the terms of article 16(1) have warranted an interpretation. The Court’s judgments in Bero & Bouzalmate and Pham are thus welcome. What impact will they have on the places where migrants are detained across Europe? Several points need to be fleshed out.

First of all, the judgments will obviously trigger changes to the German practice of using prisons for immigration detention purposes. Currently, as the recent report by the Pro Asyl describes, in ten out of sixteen federated German states (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia) migration detainees are held in prisons. However, in line with the judgment in Bero & Bouzalmate, a federal state like Germany is not obliged to set up specialized centers in each federated state. However, it shall ensure via, amongst others, cooperation agreements between federated states that the competent authorities of a federated state that does not dispose of such facilities can place migrants in specialized facilities located in other federated states (Bero & Bouzalmate, §31). At present the ten federated states that do not have specialized centers use some sixteen prisons with the total immigration detention capacity exceeding 800. To compare, besides airport detention facilities, there are only four specialized detention facilities in Germany—Berlin-Köpenick, Eisenhüttenstadt, Ingelheim, and Rendsburg—with a combined capacity of around 450.  

The Court’s reasoning in Bero & Bouzalmate that the absence of specialized detention facilities in a federated state cannot in itself justify confining migrants in prisons in that federated state is of relevance to other federal states, like Austria and Switzerland (which is bound by the Returns Directive as a Schengen associate). Arguably, it can have a broader application and impact practice based not only on the administrative structure of a state but also the geographical location of detention facilities. This would be in line with the Advocate General’s view that if a country has a specialized detention facility in its territory, with sufficient detention capacity, it shall order the detention of the person concerned in that facility, the geographical situation of that facility being of little importance (AG’s Opinion, §144). Thus, it appears that authorities would not be able to rely on the derogation clause in the second sentence of article 16(1) and hold migrants in prison, if there is available space in a specialized facility, even if it is located far away.

When would a state thus be able to rely on the second sentence of article 16(1) of the Returns Directive? When can authorities be justified in claiming that they “cannot” detain migrants in a specialized detention facility and instead hold them in a prison? In his Opinion, the Advocate General has explained when this derogation clause might be used. He reads it in conjunction with article 18 of the Directive. Under article 18(1) the Directive explicitly allows states to derogate from article 16(1) in “emergency situations,” i.e. the situations in which “an exceptionally large number of third-country nationals to be returned places an unforeseen heavy burden on the capacity of the detention facilities” of a member state. According to the Advocate General, it is possible to infer from the wording of “emergency situations” related to the influx of migrants under article 18(1) the nature of other circumstances that states may invoke to rely on the derogation clause in article 16(1). Thus, a member state may order detention in prison “only if there are exceptional and legitimate grounds, such as those alleging necessity, showing uncontestably that the weighing up of interests requires that solution” (AG’s Opinion, § 124-136).

The judgments in Bero & Bouzalmate and Pham, read together with the Advocate General’s detailed views, therefore considerably restrict the use of prisons for confining migrants. However, as the research by the Global Detention Project reveals, police stations rather than prisons are most frequently used in Europe as a substitute for specialized detention facilities. This practice has been regularly criticized by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). The CPT maintains that since the conditions in police stations are usually inadequate for prolonged periods of detention, such premises should be used only for very short periods of time. Yet, in reality states tend to apply their usual maximum time-limits on detention to migration detainees held in police stations. Is this practice compatible with article 16(1) of the Returns Directive, which is silent with respect to the use of police stations? Can the Court’s decisions in Bero & Bouzalmate and Pham be applied by analogy? Arguably, this widespread practice of the Directive’s member states needs to be assessed by the Luxembourg judges.

Finally, the Court’s stance in Pham on the separation obligation clearly puts the Directive’s provisions in line with international human rights standards. For the Court, it represents a “substantive condition” (rather than merely a procedural one) for detention of migrants carried out in prison, without compliance of which such detention, would, in principle, not be consistent with the Directive. This entails that when a state cannot ensure separated accommodation in prison, it would not be able to invoke the derogation clause under article 16(1). However, what does the separation obligation require? Does it suffice that migrants have cells for their own (but may have contact with other detainees during meal or recreation time)? Or, shall authorities set up separate units for immigration detainees to comply with that obligation? The Court does not explain it. Without clarity on the Court’s understanding of the separation principle it is difficult to assess the practice across the EU. In fact, the European Commission’s recent communication on an EU return policy points out that the domestic legislation of nine countries does not fully require a “strict separation” of migration detainees from ordinary prisoners. Arguably, the Advocate General’s views should be followed according to which the separation requirement entails “the strict separation of migrants from ordinary prisoners by establishing a separate unit completely isolated from the rest of the prison, offering no possibility of communication with persons convicted or remanded in custody” (AG’s Opinion, § 100).

Photo Credit: © Prestianni

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