Are we willing to listen?
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Are we willing to listen?

On February 25, detainees held at Lyster Barracks staged a protest during a visit by members of the House Social Affairs Committee. Like others before it, the protest was dismissed by the authorities as unjustified and abusive – “instigated by a group who had their asylum applications rejected recently”.

The detainees were simply attempting to obtain by force what they had not managed to obtain through legal means and what, by implication, they were not entitled to. The reason for their protest could, therefore, legitimately be ignored.

We beg to differ. At the root of this and of every other detainee protest, most of which have involved not only migrants whose asylum application had been rejected but also asylum seekers, is a desire to draw attention to their prolonged detention and the conditions in which they are being held.

It is difficult for one who was never detained to understand the hardship detention causes. Interviews conducted by JRS Europe with some 600 detainees in 23 EU countries found that long-term detention leads to deterioration in mental and physical health. This should come as no surprise; people are profoundly affected by major, life-changing circumstances.

Anger and depression are common responses to loss. Seen from this perspective, it is little wonder that, each year, there are protests in our detention centres, which house hundreds of new arrivals, all struggling to deal with the sudden loss of their freedom. The frustration and despair are palpable when the prospect of months of detention sinks in.

The impact of detention is often exacerbated by the migrants’ previous experiences. Many fled war or repressive regimes and suffered severe abuse in their own countries or those they passed through. Prolonged detention in countries of transit is common: one Somali woman was imprisoned for 28 months in Libya in terrible conditions before she escaped. Just days later, she found herself in detention in Malta, where she has been for eight months.

A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard- Martin Luther King Jr

Each year, detainees start out writing polite letters to the authorities. Their pleas, written in their best handwriting on pages torn out of exercise books, are not even acknowledged.

Shut off from the world and deprived of any real possibility of making their voice heard or of using legal means to challenge their detention within a realistic timeframe, detainees often feel that they have no choice but to resort to protest – in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “the language of the unheard”.

While never condoning violence, watching this cycle, year in year out, and witnessing first-hand the suffering detention causes, it is impossible not to question this policy. After all, what does detention achieve? Few would deny that detention achieves little in terms of its stated objective: removal.

In practice, hardly any rejected asylum seekers are removed before their 18 months are up because logistical difficulties – many of which, contrary to popular belief, are not the migrants’ fault – hamper the authorities’ efforts to return them. Apart from causing immeasurable suffering, detention is also expensive. It leads to criminalise migrants, encouraging the perception that they are ‘illegal’ and somehow dangerous.

Over and above all of this, both our law and policy on detention and the conditions in which migrants are detained have been repeatedly found to be in breach of the standards that are set by human rights law.

No doubt, generating alternatives to this policy requires going beyond listening to the detainees and understanding their concerns. It demands political and moral courage, a willingness to review previously unquestioned assumptions and a commitment to value the rights of the ‘other’ as much as we do our own.

Listening, however, would be a welcome start.

Will we accept the invitation?

Katrine Camilleri is director, Jesuit Refugee Service.

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