The administrative detention of migrants (foreigners without residence permits considered as valid) entered into force in 1988 in Belgium. Since then, the multiplication of this type of space is more than obvious at the border because in 1988 there were 30 places in closed centres whereas today there are approx. 650. In front of this assertion of repressive measures, one may truly speak of an explosion of the detention of this category of persons! A closed centre is in principle not a prison, it is an extra-penitentiary detention where the decision to detain only is of administrative nature. These centres are under the direct management of the Foreigners Office who has sovereign power over them. Practically, despite all the attempts to euphemize the compelling aspects of that mechanism (in closed centres one does not speak of ‘prisoners’ but well of ‘residents’, one does not say ‘incarcerated’ but well ‘retained’), it is truly a prison system. Out of sight, safe from the reactions of civil society, thousands of men and women are retained there, in average 7,000 per year. There are 5 closed centres in Belgium: 4 in Flanders and 1 in Wallonia.
Invisibility and inaccessibility… two terms that perfectly describe closed centres and make camps out of them in the sense that one can see the disappearance of the individual at the advantage of the group, the impossibility to grant respect for fundamental rights and the retention of people who did not commit any offense. Monstruous places in terms of respect of fundamental rights and of procedures but also in terms of human dignity. Multiple security mechanisms, nearly constant surveillance of the retainees, disciplinary sanctions, searches etc; The retainees are submitted to a though regime. Little privacy, locked at night in rooms of 4-6 persons or, such as in Bruges, in dormitories foreseen for up to 20 people.
Thanks to the action of militants (against closed centres), certain situations are sometimes made visible: ill people, pregnant women, parents, very old people, minors, etc. Most of them are being abandoned by their ghostly court-appointed lawyers. Foreigners who did not commit any offense. The Belgian State locks them during days, weeks, officially in order to organise their deportation, either individually thanks to the collaboration of airlines, or on collective flights supervised by soldiers and out of sight.
The unknown factor of detention: its length may in principle not exceed two months, which can be extended once under certain conditions, then once again until up to 8 months maximum. However practically, these legal deadlines, already very long, are not respected. A speciality of Belgian administration: ‘reset the counters’, hence renewing the ground for retention, in case of asylum request or failed escape attempt. Therefore, no limit in time! More than a place where there is no law, it is an exception system that applies in closed centres where everything seems possible for who is controlling them, where any procedure not pleasing the Office may be diverted, modified or used to serve the interests of more and more security migratory policies. In 2015, approx. 300 people remained detained for more than 4 months, and one thousand of them between two to four months. The longest retention in 2015 lasted one year and two months, again witnessing the lack of political will to recognise migrants as rights holders.
Under the pretext of fighting against criminality and terrorism, hence continuing this movement of migrants’ criminalisation, the Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, Theo Francken, announced in May 2017, the construction of three new closed centres by 2021, doubling Belgium’s retention capacity. Retention units for families where children will be incarcerated are on the point of being opened just next to the existing centres (127 bis and Caricole), along Brussels National airport routes. A dramatic step backwards for Belgium that had not locked children since 2008, following a dozen condemnations by the European Court of Human Rights. The retention policy is doing well, void to ‘reassure’ the public opinion and ‘discourage’ people in exile.
The progressive anchoring of a logic of surveillance, monitoring and dissuasion that affects all migrants gets crystalised in the multiplication of closed centres. It is time to denounce it and to stop this juridical, social, symbolic and political alienation!
Only the suppression of these centres, and not their likely ‘humanisation’ will put an end to these racist abuse of power.