Spain: Report on conditions and abuses in Basque centre for unaccompanied foreign minors

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In February 2010, SOS Racismo Gipuzkoa's (Mugak) working group on unaccompanied foreign minors produced a report on the conditions in which minors held in the centre in Oilur de Deba were kept and the unlawful practices that they suffered. The study followed the closing of a previous centre for urgent reception (CAU, centro de acogida de urgencia) in Tolosa in February 2009 that had received scathing criticism in a report by the Basque ombudsman (Ararteko) following a visit in November 2008. His concerns included overcrowding (49 minors in a centre with a capacity for 14), a failure to register them in the municipal residents' register (padrón), longer stays in the centre than was legally envisaged (some had been there for six months when the limit set by law was two months) and a failure to undertake any educational activities. Similar problems were observed in the functioning of the centre in Oilur de Deba that opened on 16 February 2009 and was in operation until December 2009, when it was closed for it to be refurbished to prepare it for a so-called "second phase", and to which this in-depth report is devoted.

The report deems that a number of rights, and in particular the primacy of a child's best interest, were violated in the Oilur de Deba centre, which was meant for unaccompanied foreign minors who had serious problems stemming from their conflictive conduct. Two of these are the rights to education and training, because the children's age would imply their involvement in compulsory schooling, from which they were withdrawn once they entered the centre, and the same applied as regards workshops to train them for specific jobs. The mooted reason is that this was necessary to remove them from their social milieu as part of the process to lead them to alter their conduct, imposing a "break" that is common in many therapeutic programmes. The problem that the report highlights is that "no kind of therapeutic intervention has been carried out in the Oilur-Deba centre", and that the centre was merely a "container" in which the children ate, were made to clean their rooms, and spent the rest of the day without doing anything and without any educational activities, therapy or leisure activities being organised for them. Their removal from schooling or professional training is deemed to have a likely negative effect on their future possibilities of integrating, and there are also examples in the report of cases in which they were functioning well in those contexts and had opportunities for apprenticeships to learn trades, which evaporated once they were sent to the centre. This would have also affected their future in the province in terms of the stereotypes about 'problem' minors taken to the facility.

Other elements that contravened regulations on the way in which local authorities must take care of these minors are highlighted in the report, including the failure to enter them in the municipal residents' register, to ensure that they obtain valid documentation, including instances in which they were made to end up becoming "illegals" when they reached adulthood through irregular administrative practices. They were sometimes effectively dumped onto the streets once they were released when they became adults. The material conditions in the centre were inadequate, particularly as use of the centre for higher number of minors than its capacity [ten] allowed meant that there were sometimes not enough covers and that some children ended up sleeping on mattresses on the floor, while the water they had access to and their meals were always cold. Effectively, rather than treating them as minors with rights as both people and children, they were primarily identified as problems to be isolated because they were deemed disruptive for other facilities in which minors under the local authorities' duty of care were looked after. Isolation in the centre also meant that they only had contact with other foreign children with behaviour problems like themselves, something that stripped them of any possibility of creating a healthy network of social relations or of interacting with the host society, further limiting their prospects.

Their conflictive conduct, which sometimes involved the commission of criminal offences or drug abuse, led to them being identified as elements who should be punished and, if possible, removed or encouraged to leave the province, without the reasons for their behaviour being addressed. This is illustrated by another practice by the local authorities, whereby they relinquished their duty of care over the minors when they ran away from the centre, contravening applicable legislation. The justification for this was an assumption that they may have left the province, but SOS Racismo has documented a number of cases in which this happened but they had stayed in the province of Gipuzkoa, something that the authorities were informed about without changing the outcome.

The report also includes testimonies from the staff working at the centre, which confirmed that they were discouraged by the lack of programmes or instruments for conducting educational activities, that it was impossible to establish a stable team of workers because they hardly ever stayed there for long, and that there were also instances of physical violence against the minors. One member of staff talked of beatings with truncheons while the children were handcuffed. The children often ran away from the centre, which was very isolated, in a sparsely populated rural area, the neighbourhood of Endoia, where the population had a very high average age and there were no opportunities for leisure activities or integration, and without the transport provisions that would have been required by law in these circumstances. They sometimes did so in order to continue their professional training workshops, in which some of them appeared to be making good progress, in spite of other conduct that led to them being sent to the centre in Oilur de Deba.

On other occasions, they went to SOS Racismo to register their complaints about conditions in the centre. Once they left the centre, they either slept in the streets or relied on people who temporarily lodged them in order to help. Their removal from schooling or workshops was sometimes carried out without even informing the programmes they attended, or taking positive reports from these or the children's own views into account, against their best interest. On other occasions, they would leave the centre and cause trouble in Endoia, leading to a worsening in relations with locals. One particularly striking event, particularly as it was technically an "open centre", was that a wall surrounding it was built as a result of perceived "social alarm" as regards these minors' presence and their conduct in the neighbourhood.

"The goal of this report has been to make what has happened in the centre known, for it never to happen again anywhere else". The report ends with official documents resulting from SOS Racismo's intervention on behalf of the children in the Oilur de Deba centre, that lead the authors to speak of their "optimism for the future". The first is a resolution by the Ararteko dated 14 September 2009, which reaffirms the primacy of the "child's best interest" over "any other concurring lawful interest" and implies a need for the minor to be heard. It also highlights a number of the shortcomings detailed in the report, concluding that minors' right to be heard and to education was contravened. The second is a sentence dated 18 September 2009 by the court for administrative disputes in Donostia (San Sebastian) that annuls the decision to reject renewal of the residence permit of one of the minors who were in the Oilur de Deba centre for unaccompanied foreign minors whose behaviour was a source of conflict. It illustrates the way in which the local administration sought to obstruct their possibility to reside in Spain by turning their application for a renewal of their residence permit into a request for a first residence permit as a result of "special circumstances", which enabled the use of negative reports about their conduct by the local authority (Diputacion Foral de Gipuzkoa) to justify refusal. This practice, involving the issuing of residence permits that arbitrarily ended on the day before they turned 18, resulted in these minors suddenly becoming "illegal" and "undocumented" when they reached adulthood, through no fault of their own.

Menores en riesgo: Prácticas excepcionales de las Administraciones, Mugak/SOS Arrazakeria (SOS Racismo Gipuzkoa), P. Aierbe, A. Stern Taulats, L. Manzani, S.Luciani, February 2010 [pdf, in Spanish, pp136]

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