Duration of detention

The duration of a detention period is a complex matter…In effect, it seems that someone can be imprisoned for an unlimited period of time…

As soon as a person is moved from one detention centre to another, or if they resist a deportation attempt, all timers seem to be put back to zero. This means that some people spend over a year, continuously, in different detention centres. For these people the psychological effects of such long periods in detention are devastating.

“According to established practice, the Immigration Office reassesses the situation when an occupant refuses a removal attempt. The timer is then reset to ‘zero’. This practice was validated by the Appeals Court in a judgement on 31 August 1999.” (1)

“Moreover, the only figures provided by the Immigration Office are average detention periods for each centre, not the average length per detainee. The fact that these figures ignore that individuals are transfered between different centres means they don’t acknowledge the total detention period a person endures in reality, and transfers are commonplace. 

For example, a 2006 report from Centre 127bis notes that a detainee who has spent two months at Centre 127, then three months at Centre 127bis and 24 hours at the INAD before repatriation, appears 3 times in the statistics.

Rather than being recorded as one individual who spent 5 months in detention, the statistics make it look like there were 3 separate individuals who spent 2 months, 3 months and 24 hours respectively in different detention centres. Paradoxically, this detainee, who spent 5 months in detention centres, has allowed the authorities to significantly lower their detention period statistics.” (2)

Concerning the legal duration, the texts are extremely clear when it comes to this will to keep people in detention for as long as possible:

“Pending the decision of the State responsible for examining an asylum application, in principle the asylum seeker can be retained for up to one month, unless the case is complex. The retention period can then be extended by one month.

For other categories of occupants (not asylum seekers), in principle the maximum retention period is two months. Under certain conditions, this period may reach five months. After five months of retention, a detainee must systematically be released, unless their release would undermine the preservation of public order or pose a risk to national security. Only in such cases can the retention period be extended to 8 months at most. In these exceptionally serious circumstances the Ministry may then pass on the case to the Government. In such cases an occupant may be retained for longer than 8 months.” (1)

It is important to underline turns of phrase like “in principle”; “unless the case is complex”; and “in these exceptionally serious circumstances”.

Such extremely vague terms allow the Immigration Office to exercise discretionary powers; which leave lawyers and associations powerless.The Ministry also differentiates between asylum seekers and non-asylum seekers. But in reality we see no difference in the detention period for these two categories. Most of the time an asylum request is fast-tracked when the asylum seeker arrives at a detention centre. With a negative response nearly always being the favoured option, the asylum seeker is now simply categorised as ‘undocumented’.

“Since the entry into force of the new law, in June 2007, detention periods have increased, because now the entire asylum procedure, not only what was previously known as the admissibility phase, can be carried out in the detention centre.” (2)

In reality it is extremely rare to see someone released from a detention centre because the legal detention period has been reached. It is virtually impossible to use this as a legal argument to get a person released. Detainees have therefore no way of knowing for how much longer they are to remain imprisoned in a detention centre.

“I’ve been in Centre 127bis for nearly 6 months. Today I’m at 5 months and 15 days.”


“Have you been in Centre 127bis for a long time? They took me in in November, so soon that will be 5 months.”


“I was in detention for 8 months! Today I’m still here and I’m getting my papers! What was the use in locking me up? To stir my hatred and fuel my rage?”


(1) Federal Ombudsman Summary, “Investigation into the operation of detention centres managed by the Immigration Office” (From Bruecker & Schuermans, June 2009), http://www.mediateurfederal.be/fr/bibliotheque/rapports/rapports-dinvestigation

(2) LIBE Committee delegation report on a visit to detention centres for asylum seekers and immigrants in Belgium – Rapporteur: Giusto CATANIA