Isabel Corthier - Caritas International 1

What is a detention center for migrants?

Administrative detention centres for migrants, the so-called ‘closed’ centres, are very similar to prisons. There is one big difference: people in detention centres are not detained because they have committed criminal acts, they are being held for migration-related reasons only. Because they don’t have a residence permit, because they are seeking asylum or because their travel documents or legitimate documents have been found invalid by the border police. Being detained for weeks or even months in fear of forced deportation leaves lifelong scars. Detention centres for migrants raise serious questions about the respect for human rights and procedures and human dignity.

Belgium has six detention centres with a total capacity of 635 places: Bruges (112 places, including a separate wing for women), Vottem (119 places, men only), 127 bis Steenokkerzeel (120 places, men only), Merksplas (142 places, men only), Holsbeek (28 places, women only), and a transit centre not far from Brussels National Airport, called Caricole (114 places). It is estimated that, on average, 6,000 to 8,000 people are held every year. (Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the capacity of the immigration detention centres was reduced, resulting in a corresponding decrease in the number of people in detention).

Families with minor children are being held in detention centres for families with children, the so-called “return houses”.  These are located on different sites (Tubize, Beauvechain, St-Gillis-Waas, Zulte and Tielt). There are 27 units, with a total capacity of 169 beds. It is an alternative form of detention, allowing for certain movements (going to school, in principle). However, it is not in compliance with the best interests of the child. Since 2017, the 127 bis detention centre has had family units for the detention of families with minor children. For the time being, no children are detained there, but there is no guarantee that this will not happen in the future.

Only a few people are aware of what happens in these detention centres and detention centres for families. Move aims to bring this aspect of migration policy to the attention of the general public by giving a voice to people who have been detained.