As Belgium’s asylum and migration secretary, Theo Francken, repeatedly affirms his commitment to increase the number of places in closed detention centers, civil society organizations continue to voice their concerns about the detention conditions of aliens and question whether human rights are upheld in these centers.
Each year, more than 6,000 migrants are held in five closed detention centers across Belgium because they lack a residence permit. These centers are scenes of numerous human rights abuses, according to testimonials. In these remote, difficult to access places, authorities practice arbitrary power, far from any citizen oversight and control.
Open Access Now, a campaign coordinated by an international platform of associations, strives for the closure of detention centers for foreigners. While working for this goal, Open Access Now also demands greater transparency and accountability for these prisons. This should include unconditional access to detention centers for civil society and media members, and readily available operational information.
Malin Björk, a member of the European Parliament from Sweden, recently visited the detention center in Merksplas, Belgium, to support Open Access Now. She wanted to make use of her right as an MEP to visit closed detention centers, which are multiplying in Europe.
Belgium's Immigration Office denied Ms. Björk’s first request, but a second visit was scheduled for early March—but not for any journalists. The media is almost always refused access, though these refusals are supposed to be the exception, not the rule. An Immigration Office representative didn’t try to hide it: the administration believes that journalists are prejudiced against detention centers.
These closed centers are essentially prisons. Being detained means having to leave your human rights at the door. A striking example is the use of isolation, a penalty in legal limbo, under the name "adapted regime." This measure was intended to be used for the protection of detainees.
At the end of her visit, Malin Björk called for the opening up of these centers to the media and others to strengthen democratic vigilance. The migrant rights network Migreurop also used her visit as an opportunity to reaffirm its strong disagreement with the policy choice made by Secretary Francken to increase the capacity of detention centers. Doing so would only intensify human rights abuse, it said.
The League of Human Rights and CIRÉ (Coordination of Initiatives for Refugees and Foreigners), which represent Belgium in the Open Access Now campaign, remain committed to the fight against closed detention centers. We must be vigilant about what the state is doing, almost out of sight of citizens…and yet, on their behalf.