Criminalisation, Stigmatisation ?

Apart from the reason for imprisonment, a detention centre looks very much like a prison. Moreover, before the entry into force of the first four detention centres in Belgium, in the years 1980, illegal people were ‘hosted’ in prisons. At that time, among the arguments put forward by the   instigators of these transit and imprisonment centres was the fact that the creation of these centres could notably enable not to “stigmatise” illegal prisoners anymore when locking them up with “real” offenders.

In spite of that, one can notice that nothing is being done to differentiate this institution from the prison one.

“The Royal Decree that rules them (detention centres) explicitly refers to the penitentiary system and many of their characteristics evoke the prison middle: fences, concertinas, electronic locking systems for doors, security cameras and control towers, disciplinary sanctions, isolation cells, individual files, distribution of the detainees into squares, fine tuning of their schedule, etc” (8)

The Human Rights Commission of the Court of Justice publicly announced that it was worried about the resort to administrative sanctions equivalent to penal sanctions. The author of the report on the administrative criminalisation of illegal immigrants declared to the media: “It is difficult to justify the use of criminal laws because the infraction of crossing borders does not cause victims”(9).

  • People in detention centres are deprived of liberty for the only offence that they wanted to travel freely. This reality is very hard to accept for these people, and many of them fall into depression or madness after this imprisonment. The impression that they are treated like criminals or animals is often mentioned in the conversations with the detainees.

“Here, every time you try to speak, do something, change the situation for the good of everyone, they put you under pressure and tell you “your plane leaves tomorrow”. There are no criminals here, no one did something bad to the Belgian state, however we are living a real inhuman situation.” (Listen to the testimony)

“Me, I didn’t do nothing, I asked for nothing, I’ve never committed any crime here in Belgium, I’ve always tried to be respectable.” (Listen to the testimony)

“It is not a detention centre here, there are too many cameras, too many guards…like at Guantanamo! ” (Listen to the testimony)

“I’ve learnt one thing here: as a refugee you are not welcome in Europe. They put you in prison even though you did not commit any crime and they treat you without respect…” (Listen to the testimony)

  • We can hear that many degrading treatments are being used, either during the arrest, the detention or the deportation (see the chapter on violence and deportation)

“Then I asked to call my lawyer to inform him about my situation. His answer was no, it was not possible to call my lawyer, because here, we are in Belgium and not in America. He turned to his co-worker and told him something, and when he came back in the cell he hit me. I moved back in the cell, asking: “Stop, stop, why are you doing this? I am not making any problems; I am just asking to call my lawyer”. But he kept punching me, and then they put me handcuffs and pushed me into a cell.” (Listen to the testimony)

“It’s like a prison here. What crime have I committed to be brought here? I haven’t killed anyone nor stolen anything. All I did was come here and apply for asylum. If I had wanted to go to jail I would have stayed in Iran and gone to jail there!  I tied myself to the radiator in order to defend myself. They hit me so hard on my hand that my fingers bruised! There were ten people with gloves. They picked me up like you pick up a sheep! Can you believe it?! They threw me in a police van that was like a cage! At the airport, I kissed all the policemen’s hands but no one was listening to me! They treated me like I was a piece of rubbish.” (Listen to the testimony)

  • Communication with the outside is often very hard. Detainees are distrustful because they were often the subject of threats if they spoke too much with people from the outside or with journalists. Therefore they are very cautious when a new person rings them.

“Before I give you my name let me tell you the story of a guy who spoke to the press three days ago and gave both his first and last name. He was detained in solitary confinement. So if I reveal my identity they will make my life hell in here. I can’t give you my name because it will come back to haunt me. It is like a prison here.” (Listen to the testimony)

  • Testimonies on the issue of imprisonment

“But how would you handle it if you were detained, if you were told what to do, how to behave… no no! You are still imprisoned! Even if you are not locked in your room 24h a day like in a prison, and you can move about freely between the TV room, your dormitory, friend’s rooms…you are still imprisoned!…The question is therefore not a physical one, it is moral!” (Listen to the testimony)

“You can understand that prison is prison. It cannot be a house. Even if they feed us with a golden spoon we cannot bear it! We are not feeling well in here.” (Listen to the testimony)

“The moment we arrived we asked for asylum and since we have been in Belgium we have been in jail. We didn’t see any streets, any people, just jail.” (Listen to the testimony)

“But all the detention centres should be shut down. Nobody should be detained because they don’t have the right to reside in a country or possess an identity card! It should be illegal to imprison people who don’t have papers, or because of the colour of their skin…It is racial discrimination! Fascism even!” (Listen to the testimony)

“Can you close them? You’ve got to close them, they’re not a good thing, not nice! Can you please shut down detention centres? You can close them and leave people alone! I was there, I tell you, and it’s not good. The people who are still there are suffering!” (Listen to the testimony)

“This was the first time in my life I was deprived of my freedom. It is really hard to be deprived of your freedom. We have the opportunity to defend people who are in prison, but we don’t realise the gravity of what being imprisoned means…As part of our studies, in general we say that prison is criminogenic, i.e. it is a factor which leads to more crime. It is inhuman and it is degrading. We have to stop people being detained as much as possible.” (Listen to the testimony)

“I never imagined I would be in prison. My first period of detention was here in Belgium. I felt like I was underground, my moral was very low, my hair whitened. Prison is difficult, prison kills, there are people who rot in prison. The healthy become ill and it is not clear why. Detention centres create a culture of hate because people find themselves there for no reason and they are treated badly for no reason. Because of this everyone who leaves a detention centre leaves full of hate and bad thoughts.” (Listen to the testimony)

“It is really a prison, even worse than that, because people in jail are sometimes released, they know how much time they will have to stay and when they will leave, but here, they even say this is a waiting room, we are here just to wait that they deport us wherever they think best.” (Listen to the testimony)

“I arrived at the detention centre in the afternoon and there were lots of people there. Lots of men, women and children. I was very scared. I had never been in a place like that before, locked in.” (Listen to the testimony)

“They are prisons, they really are prisons, they are not detention centres! If one says they are centres, then they should be centres such as the Red Cross ones. But they are prions. You are behind bars! To go somewhere you first need to open this door, to go there they close that door and open this other door, it is a prison!” (Listen to the testimony)

(7) Du disciplinaire au sécuritaire – De la prison au centre fermé – de Matthlieu Bietlot

(8) La Libre Belgique, “Ne dites plus : illégaux”, 12 février 2010, [11/04/2010]