What are closed centres ?

  • What is a detention centre?

Under Belgian law, detention centres serve the following purpose: to detain illegal migrants. These centres have been legal since the law of 15th December 1980 on the entry, stay, settlement, and removal of foreign nationals. (M.B December 31st 1980).

In a detention centre are detained the persons who “are put at the disposal of the government or waiting for court decisions” (1) either because they are illegal immigrants and do not have the necessary documents or do not fulfil the conditions to legally enter or stay in Belgium, or because they are waiting for a decision of the Foreign Office concerning their asylum request.

At present, this detention mode is expanding in Europe and it is not being questioned by the authorities : “The capacity of detention centres will be used in a more efficient way and extended if needs be.” (2)

  • Is a detention centre like a prison?

In the texts, a detention centre is not considered as a prison in the extent that it is an institution that does not depend on the Ministry of Justice, that is not submitted to prisons’ regulations but rather to a Royal Decree. The common point between detention centres and prisons is their function, freedom deprivation. However, this function is fulfilled to answer different goals : prison is a sanction that follows the transgression of a law whereas the detention centre is one step in the deportation process.

Nevertheless, in both cases it implies imprisonment.

What is typical of a centre is its legal and political structure that is based on the permanence of an exception. Indeed, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom should prevail, whereas imprisonment is supposed to remain an exceptional administrative measure, a measure of last resort. Hence detention centres are closer to camps than to prisons, “a camp is a space that is being created when the exception starts becoming the rule” (3).

More than once has Belgium been accused by Human Rights organisations for the detention and deportation conditions of undocumented migrants. Many detainees and former detainees speak about the humiliation and violence they suffered and still suffer from.

“It is a prison, a real prison! The bedroom doors are prison doors, really heavy, there is no direct contact between the detainees and the guards, you have to talk to them through the metal door, a real prison door”. Listen to the testimony

  • What “efficiency” for the detention centres?

“If the official aim of imprisonment and removal measures of foreign nationals is to limit migration flows, fight illegal immigration or abuse of asylum rights, and bring peace to public spaces, one has to admit that these measures are rather unefficient: foreigners keep entering the territory, be it legally or illegally, and they keep competing with Belgian workers and welfare beneficiaries. The result even seems to be at the antipodes of these goals since the intensification of controls, and the virtual threat of detention centres and deportation drive the illegal immigrants in more and more precarious situations – insecuring the so-called insecurity factors- and play the game of traffickers of all kinds, be it false papers, illegal work or prostitution networks.”

Irrespective of their failures, control policies of migration flows – and especially detention centres- fulfill symbolic, ideological and spectacular functions : on the one hand they dissuade future asylum seekers or immigrants from coming to Belgium and on the other hand, they send strong messages to the public, showing them that drastic measures are being taken to calm down the feeling of insecurity and divert votes away from the far right parties, while strengthening xenophobic tendencies and the confusion between crime and immigration. (4)

(1) According to the Royal Decrees of June 8 2009, setting the rules and functioning of detention centres. 

(2) Note de politique générale du 20/12/2011 – Réforme de l’asile et de la migration

(5 ) Agamben, G., Homo Sacer. Le pouvoir souverain et la vie nue, Paris, Le Seuil, 1997.

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