"This is hell": Romania's horrendous detention conditions

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Calls of desperation have been received by the Migreurop network from Romania's Arad detention centre in the past weeks.[1] Serious cases of brutality and abuse by officers were reported, raising deep concerns about detention conditions and the monitoring of immigration detention centres in Romania. As a European-wide campaign on immigration detention calling for more transparency and accountability has just been launched, these voices act as a powerful reminder of the violence inflicted on irregular migrants in Europe today.

Romania: a buffer state at the EU's Eastern external border

Romania became a Member of the EU in 2007 together with Bulgaria, thereby extending the Union's external borders further east. As such, it is expected to meet EU border management standards and stop irregular migration into the EU, and is part of Frontex's operations, especially at the Eastern Border of the EU, and of the Prague Process (inter-governmental cooperation in migration management between EU and Schengen Member States, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia).

Millions of euros were invested by the European Commission, especially through the PHARE programme, to support reforms necessary for Romania's accession, particularly with regard to border management (e.g. legislative reforms; modernisation of detention facilities).[2] There are two immigration detention centres in Romania, one in Otopeni, whose renovation and expansion was completed in 2004 with the Commission's support, and one in Arad. Both operate under the Aliens law, adopted in 2002, whereby detention centres must be "established, organised, sanitarily authorised [with certified sanitary standards], arranged and equipped so as to offer civilised conditions of accommodation, food, medical assistance and personal hygiene" (Art. 94(3-4)). Medical care and social assistance shall also be provided.

Romania has a "small" detention capacity of about 1,500 (two immigration detention centres and six transit facilities)[3], and although detention conditions have long been criticised for violating European standards, attention has so far focused more on detention conditions in prison than on immigration detention.

Worrying detention conditions

In January 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found Romania in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights on inhuman and degrading treatment as alleged by the applicant in a lawsuit dating back to 2006.[4] Serious allegations of mistreatment in detention did not seem to stop the completion of Romania's accession process to the EU. The absence of information and general reporting on immigration detention centres and transit facilities in Romania conceals a shameful reality that has been tacitly legitimated by the European Union for the purpose of border management at its external border.

In March 2012, the Migreurop network received two calls sent by desperate migrants detained in Arad detention centre, including one pregnant women and psychologically vulnerable persons. They denounced the violence exerted by officers, in total breach of the Alien law that supposedly applies in detention centres: use of pepper spray, beating of detainees, no access to medical care, no heating or access to water on some days, no access to outdoor premises, hardly any access to the corridor outside of the cells (no more than an hour a day), to cite a few of their allegations.

Parts of the testimonies are particularly shocking:

"Once we wanted to go on hunger strike to say we could not stand this anymore! We asked for our rights. That day, they asked gendarmerie officers, wearing balaclavas, to come. We were locked up in our cells, they sprayed pepper gas on us through the window of our cell door. Then they opened the door, and we were all beaten. They even broke one detainee's arm and nose".

"One detainee who was feeling very down (… ) wanted to slash his wrists. The policemen brought him a knife, telling him "You'll manage it with that"".

"One of the detainees who was in his cell asked for a lighter to smoke a cigarette. He was not given one, and he got angry (…)the man who had asked for a lighter had his hands cuffed behind his back. Then they beat him badly. It was a massacre. We heard him shout for about a minute. Then the officers left him in his cell. They closed the door, and left. This man could not walk for the whole week-end. His head was swollen, his nose had bled and his entire body was covered with bruises. He did not get access to any medical care".

The centre's authorities deny these allegations, arguing that the pregnant woman was "staying with her husband in a bigger room with a television" and that none of the detainees had complained to him.[5] However, as pointed out in a recent UNHCR report:

"According to information received, aliens in administrative detention in the Arad Centre do not benefit from regular assistance or legal counselling".[6]

"18 months in a cage": Europe's detention policy as a way to "manage" immigration

While detention conditions in Romania are sadly notorious as one of the worst in the EU, the detainees' voices act as a general wake-up call against the detention system applicable across the EU. Since the adoption of the Returns Directive in 2008, denounced as the "outrageous" directive by civil society organisations [7], detention can last for up to 18 months (6 months renewable thrice).

Although detention should be used as a last resort, as emphasised in the Directive, the reality shows things are different. The transposition of the Returns Directive into national law led to the increase of the maximum length of detention in many Member States, not least in those located at the EU's external borders where authorities have developed an arsenal to stop, detain and deport irregular migrants. In Romania, Italy and Cyprus, for example, the maximum length of detention is now 18 months.

The necessity of such a long deprivation of liberty is questionable, all the more so as previous national legislation used to impose shorter detention periods in a majority of cases. In Romania, before the transposition of the directive in July 2011, a person could be granted "leave to remain in Romanian territory" if the authorities were unable to return him/her after six months.[8]

Moreover, one can wonder how deprivation of liberty, even in a "bigger room with a television", can be appropriate for a pregnant woman. More generally, the detention of vulnerable persons in prison-like premises is debatable, all the more so given the impact of detention on detainees' mental and physical health[9], which the Arad detainees reported as well.

The EU's strategy to detain and deport migrants deemed undesirable has been criticised for many years. Testimonies such as those sent to Migreurop bring the attention back from administrative management to the human face of immigration detention, highlighting the inhumane conditions faced by detained migrants with the complicity of EU authorities.

It is impossible for journalists to enter Arad detention centre following dissemination of the detainees' story reveals the opacity in which such alleged violence can be perpetrated. A campaign has been launched by European Alternatives on 26 March 2012 to call for open access to detention centres for civil society and the media: www.openaccessnow.eu

[1] Arad camp (Romania): "We are in hell", detainees' stories collected by Migreurop on 08/03/2012; Arad Camp (Romania): handcuffed and beaten for a lighter, Arad camp, stories collected on 26/03/2012
[2] Permanent Representation of Romania to the EU, Accession Assistance; Liz Fekete (27 March 2003) Institute of Race Relations, From refugee protection to managed migration: the EU's border control programme
[3] Global Detention Project, Romania Detention profile (latest update May 2010)
[4] Migreurop (2010) European Borders: controls, detention and deportation, p.56
[5] Migrants complaint over inhuman conditions in Arad (23 March 2012) Romanian Times
[6] Romania - Researched and compiled by the Refugee Documentation Centre of Ireland on 14 July 2010
[7] "Against the outrageous Directive!", full-text of speech given by Yasha Maccanico (Statewatch) at the hearing with NGOs organised by the GUE group, European Parliament, Strasbourg on 12 December 2007
[8] Ibid at 7
[9] See the work of Medical Justice ; JRS (2010) Becoming Vulnerable in Detention

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