Why are we locking up migrants?

A note from the editor

Hazel Healy

At the time of writing, Amnesty International was taking Britain to task for refusing to resettle any of Syria’s 2.3 million refugees. This government responded curtly that the application of any Syrian asylum-seeker who pitched up in Britain – around 1,300 people last year – would be considered on its merits.

But of the few Syrians who do make it, not all find sanctuary.

Some are imprisoned en route, such as the family pictured on the front cover who wound up in a Bulgarian detention centre.

Another Syrian attempting to join his brother in Britain found himself detained under immigration powers in Oxfordshire. Two months (and two bail refusals) later, he had lost contact with his wife and seven children back home and was desperate to get out. Before I got the chance to speak to him, the Home Office had obliged, deporting him to Hungary, his entry-point to Europe, where he had been badly beaten.

He was just the first of many would-be interviewees to disappear. At times, it felt like chasing ghosts. Detention is a hidden, parallel world where journalists are forbidden and rights evaporate. Access is highly restricted; migrants who speak out risk reprisals. Consequently, precious few of the many thousands locked up and later released were happy to ‘play with the lion’s tail’, as one Iranian put it.

Out of public view, the most extraordinary abuses can happen. Take Peter Qasim. He spent seven years locked up after Australian authorities ‘forgot’ about him. ‘Feeling forgotten’ plagues detainees, according to one regular detention centre visitor. This magazine is our attempt to remedy this, by exposing what is happening, not in Burma or Eritrea but in Western liberal democracies – no more so than in New Internationalist’s main subscriber countries.

Elsewhere, we have a visual treat in the form of The Unreported Year, and an exclusive interview with theorist of the moment, David Graeber.

Hazel Healy for the New Internationalist co-operative.

The big story

Journey interrupted. A Somali woman waits at a detention centre in Malta, where asylum-seekers can be detained for up to 12 months on arrival. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Journey interrupted. A Somali woman waits at a detention centre in Malta, where asylum-seekers can be detained for up to 12 months on arrival.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Why are we locking up migrants?

Detaining foreigners is costly, inhumane and on the rise. Time to turn the tide back, says Hazel Healy.

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Detaining migrants - The Facts

The facts and figures on the movement, freedom, costs and damage of detaining migrants around the world.

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A guard from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) at the T Don Hutto Residental Center in Texas, which holds migrant families. The CCA made $1.7 billion in 2012 - more than any other private prison company in the US.LM Otero/AP Photo

Meet the firms cashing in on imprisoning foreigners

Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster says Antony Loewenstein.

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Children cross the street as residents of south Tel Aviv protest against African migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan in their neighbourhoods, in May 2012. The week before, a similar protest led to a rampage that an Israeli broadcaster dubbed a 'pogrom'. Protests such as these still take place on a regular basis in Tel Aviv and other major cities in Israel.Baz Ratner/Reuters

Inhospitable Israel

Joseph Cox reports on an acute humanitarian crisis for African asylum-seekers.

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Illustration: Kathryn Corlett

Tough Guide to the World's Detention Centres

Tim Baster & Isabelle Merminod offer a satirical round-up of the insalubrious accommodation awaiting travellers from the Global South.

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Thinking outside the fence

Governments are increasingly recognizing that detention is both harmful – and costly. Campaigners and researchers consider the merits of current alternatives to large-scale arbitrary detention.

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Take it further

Detention is strongly contested in the courts and on the streets, while a network of supporters shows solidarity with visits, friendship. The last few years have seen a growth in migrant-led social movements and political action. In late 2013, refugee protest camps sprang up in public squares in towns across Europe.

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Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

The unreported year

Stories that didn't make the mainstream media in 2013.

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Web exclusives


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Woman on a bus in the desert city of Mary (dbimages / Alamy). The two outside shots at the bottom are from the Tolkuchka Bazaar in the capital, Ashgabat. Sandwiched between them is the self-glorifying golden statue erected by the former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.Photos by David Stanley, the last three under a CC Licence.

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