Are Spain’s immigrant detention centers in breach of human rights law?

Testimonies highlight unclear legal status of many detainees who have committed no crime

D. M., who was held in a Madrid immigrant detention center for 60 days.
D. M., who was held in a Madrid immigrant detention center for 60 days.Carlos Rosillo

When D. M. was locked up in the Immigrant Detention Center (CIE) in Madrid’s Aluche district in 2012 he was given a very thin mattress to sleep on in a small room with eight beds and 12 occupants. A former civil servant with the Ecuadorian army who prefers to remain anonymous, D. M. was sent to Madrid after being picked up by the police in Ciudad Real in central Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region.

Having lost his job, D. M. was unable to renew his residency permit, so he and his wife found themselves without papers. When the police learned of his status, they pushed for his deportation, and a judge ordered his detention on the grounds that he might flee. “I’m not a criminal,” says D. M., adding: “I have never committed a crime, either in Spain or in my own country.”

One of the few good things about the detention was the chance to speak about God Former detainee D. M.

Almost 7,000 people have spent time in one of Spain’s eight CIEs in the last year. According to the most recent report from the Attorney General’s office, around 52% were returned to their country of origin: almost 20% fewer than in 2009. “If the immigrant can’t be sent home for whatever reason, he or she is supposed to be released straight away,” says Luis Lafon Nicuesa, an immigration attorney.

On the night of October 18, some 40 men being held at the Aluche CIE attempted to escape, before then staging a rooftop protest against conditions at the center.

Other centers throughout Spain have been criticized for the poor conditions detainees are held under.

D. M. was finally released from the Madrid CIE in March 2012, having spent the maximum 60-day period undocumented foreigners can be held for. During his time there, he says he was terrified of being deported. “My whole family lives in Spain,” he says, explaining how difficult it would be to find himself back in Ecuador.

Fortunately, the Ecuadorian embassy and his lawyer were able to prevent his deportation and he was released on condition he put his papers in order. Remembering the ordeal, D. M., a devout evangelist, puts his hands together in prayer, a practice he believes got him through.

“I was always respected by the guards in the CIE,” he says, “but there was a Moroccan inside with me that they nearly killed. They left him unconscious on the floor – they were afraid they had killed him.”

Migrants are supposed to be released immediately if they are not going to be deported Immigration attorney Luis Lafon Nicuesa

D. M. describes how the man was kicked and beaten by police officers who serve as guards at the CIEs. “If you make too much fuss, they shut you in solitary,” he adds.

A police spokesman rejects D. M.’s account: “First of all, in the Aluche CIE, there are no cells, let alone solitary ones. There are bars on the windows because it’s a detention center and the inmates shouldn’t be able to escape – don’t forget they’re there by law.”

He adds: “There has not been a single allegation of abuse against the CIE guards working in Aluche and there’s no record of that kind of misconduct. The Red Cross and doctors visit the centers on a daily basis to prevent this kind of abuse taking place.”

A representative of the SUP Police Union says its members suffer from stress: “They are also victims in these centers, where resources and staff are scarce.”

Besides checks by the Red Cross and medics, immigration attorney Nicuesa points out that the public prosecutor’s office also makes sure CIEs adhere to the rules and respect basic human rights.” Working with immigration officers, they carried out 13 inspections in 2015 and drew attention to the fact that the installations in Aluche were in a state of “deterioration.” It is now being refurbished and the number of inmates reduced from 280 to 110, the capacity it was designed for.

I have never committed a crime, either in Spain or in my own country Former inmate D. M.

As well as inspections, the immigration authorities try to ensure that a proper channel exists for complaints, and a system has been established whereby they are collected, studied and assessed before being handed over to the directors of the CIEs. D. M. explains that appointments with the CIE director are supposedly made via envelopes distributed by the guards, but insists he never saw one in the two months he was there.

It is four years since D. M. was held in Aluche, but he says he still remembers the details of his detention. Each day, he was woken at 7am. Inmates were then given time to wash and, if necessary, make a doctor’s appointment. The days dragged with only one hour in the yard for exercise, although D. M. says this was sometimes cut short. “It depends who’s on duty,” he says. “The same thing happens at visiting time.”

He says that the guards could be bribed to smuggle in marijuana, liquor and mobile phones. “We had a small shared phone that the longest-serving person in the cell looked after; a guard called El Melilla got it for us for €150,” he explains.

There is a television room, but D.M. says the inmates spend most of their time either in their cells or in the corridors. “You can’t use the toilets,” says D.M., adding that there was little to do during the day. “You can’t call the time in there living,” he says.

When D. M. was released from the Aluche CIE, he says he was faced with a Catch-22 situation. To get a job, he needed a residence permit, but to get a permit, he needed an employment contract. Since then he has attended training courses and acquired a set of basic mechanic and plastering skills that have made him more employable.

The Attorney General’s office says around 52% of detainees are deported

Under EU law, D. M. should never have been kept in a CIE unless the authorities were going to deport him. “The only justification for detention is to prepare for the return or to complete the deportation process,” state the rules.

“The reasons why someone is not deported can vary,” says Paco Solange, a lawyer specializing in immigration. “It could have something to do with an agreement with the immigrant’s country of origin, or simply a lack of flights, or sometimes the immigrant is reprieved.”

Between 2011 and 2015, the Spanish authorities spent at least €26 million on deporting 4,674 illegal immigrants, averaging €5,629 per person.

According to Solange, immigrants who have been convicted of a crime and spent more than a year in prison must be deported by law. While their deportation is being arranged, they are held in CIEs with people like D. M.

The Police Union admits that this arrangement can lead to problems among detainees. “One of the biggest problems in the CIEs is the mix of ex-convicts and people who have done nothing wrong and whose papers are simply not in order,” says a union spokesman, adding: “This contravenes the Spanish Constitution, which says you can’t deprive somebody of their freedom for an administrative irregularity such as not having residency papers.”

D. M. says that most of the time, inmates looked after one another, though there was friction sometimes due to cultural differences. One of the few conflicts he himself was involved in was over a game of chess, which he refuses to describe.

The chessboard came from the Red Cross, which, together with other organizations, provides the inmates with toothbrushes, soap and a towel on arrival – a sort of welcome pack. “If they have clothes in your size, they give you those too,” says D. M.

Using the smartphone obtained through a police officer, D. M. says he spent much of his time listening to soccer matches and religious events. “Not all the people I was with spoke Spanish but they listened in too,” says D. M. who is once again able to attend his local church with his three children, aged 14, 16 and 18. “One of the few good things I remember about the detention,” he says, “was the opportunity it gave me to speak about God.”

English version by Heather Galloway.


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