Tech & Rights

A Visit to a Belgian Detention Center for Foreigners

What is life like for asylum seekers held in a Belgian detention center for foreigners? A parliamentary delegation, guided by the League of Human Rights, made a recent visit to Caricole detention center.

by David Morelli
Photo: Simon Blackley - Flickr/CC content

The Steenrock Festival is an annual music festival held in front of Belgium’s Caricole detention center for foreigners. The festival's demands are to close the detention center, stop deportations, review the asylum and migration policies in order to move them towards ensuring freedom of movement for everybody, and to condemn police violence.

On the occasion of this event, a Belgian and European parliamentary delegation visited the center, accompanied by, among others, the Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH). Most participants had never visited the center before, so the president of LDH, Alexis Deswaef, served as a kind of guide for them.

'Inadmissible'

The visit to Caricole, a center opened in the spring of 2012 to replace the INAD center at Brussels Airport and the detention facility Reception Center 127bis, lasted about an hour and a half and began with a briefing in the meeting room by the center's director, accompanied by her security chief.

The center has a capacity of 90 people, but rarely holds even two-thirds this number. It is intended to house persons Belgium considers "inadmissible,” usually because their documents are not in order or they lack evidence of having sufficient funds.

These people are usually held for around three days before being flown out of the country. There are also asylum seekers who have applied for asylum from the airport or Caricole, and for whom imprisonment is longer.

Their detention lasts two to three months while they wait for an outcome to their proceedings. If their application is successful, they receive the support of Fedasil; if it’s unsuccessful, they are expelled.

Another category consists of people classified as “illegal persons.” They are locked up pending possible expulsion. Their confinement can last for months; one pregnant woman was held for almost six months. A final category of people held in Caricole are those detained by the Ministry of Interior (usually people transferred from prisons).

Calm atmosphere

We were told this mixed population poses no cohabitation problems, and the atmosphere during the visit was rather calm.

The current population is mainly composed of Albanians, Iraqis and Syrians.

Asked whether there were minors held in the center, the director told us that this can happen, but only for a few hours while their age is verified.

On our questions about detainees’ ability to access information on their rights (regarding legal representation, the claims and proceedings against them, etc.), we were informed that documents (available in 30 languages) are given to detainees upon arrival. Information regarding visits of NGOs and the Complaints Commission are displayed in common areas. We didn't have enough time to see them.

Green fields and high fences

The tour continued along white corridors. Everything was white here, rounded windows overlooking green fields. Everything was clean. One could imagine being in a hospital.

Although most detainees don't know the Dutch language, we noted that Caricole’s signs are only in this language. An Internet connection exists but is only accessible a few hours. The center lacks enough staff.

An outdoor courtyard (about three square meters) and an athletic field—surrounded by high fences—do exist, but we didn’t see anyone using them. It was the same for the library, and only a few inmates were in the TV room.

We also visited “intake” rooms (holding four detainees), which were extremely clean, and isolation rooms, which we were told are “only for sick people” (for example, when the risk of an Ebola outbreak exists).

A peephole allowed us to look inside these rooms. The isolation cells in Caricole are small, with tiny windows and black walls, without any seat or other object. They are sometimes used as smoking places.

Isolation cells were used 15 times in 2014, often following a serious incident, and sometimes for only very short periods of two to three hours (the time it takes for the inmate to calm down). Medicines are used only if prescribed and a register is kept.

Talking to inmates

During a stop in one of the corridors, we talked to three ladies who wanted to share their situation with us. From a logistical point of view, there was not much to be said, but it actually appeared that their problems were related to the deprivation of liberty and being subjected to humiliating situations (for example, being handcuffed during transfers to and from court).

We would like to recall here the situation of a young Somali woman, handcuffed in the transfer van and forgotten by the police. She sat there in scorching heat for two hours, without access to water or any way to call for help. Finally someone remembered about her and took her back to the center.

Others mentioned that the food seems to be prepared with only one type of person in mind, and some therefore refuse to eat for several days.

Other inmates gradually approached us during our visit. An elderly gentleman showed his prosthetic leg and said he does not understand why he is here. Another gentleman said that he was arrested within 20 minutes of receiving a negative decision on his asylum application. Yet another said he wants to change his lawyer.

We also raised the question of the intervention of the police inside the center. We were told that this does not happen. When the director guided us out of the center from the back of the building, we saw some 15 policemen leaving the center.

Some media members welcomed us at the exit door, but no one from the mainstream press or journalists from the public service. A scheduled statement from LDH was not allowed to take place (because of time constraints, we were told).

It will be interesting to see any follow-up from the members of parliament present during the visit.