The Numbers Game: How Many Women and Children are in Detention in Europe

Post by Mary Bosworth, Director of Border Criminologies, Reader in Criminology at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford and Professor of Criminology at Monash University, Australia

For my paper at the Strasbourg meeting of National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) this coming Thursday, 21 November 2013, I have been asked to present on ‘vulnerable people in detention,’ by which the organisers meant women and children. In preparation for my talk, I have been trying to find reliable and up-to-date figures for the numbers of women and children in detention in Europe. This has proven to be very difficult.

Children with their mothers detained on the Greek island of Lesbos Photo from whenyoudontexist.eu

Children with their mothers detained on the Greek island of Lesbos (Source: whenyoudontexist.eu)

According to End Child Detention, more than 100 countries around the world detain children, but the total numbers are unclear. In 2010, they counted 356 children in detention in France. However, since then under President François Hollande, who famously promised (like the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) to end child detention, numbers have gone down considerably. In the United Kingdom (UK), Clegg announced the end of child detention in December 2010, even as Tinsley House was being refitted to hold families for 48 hours and the Cedar’s ‘pre-departure’ accommodation unit was being planned. Since 2010, around 450 children have passed through detention.

In terms of women, we have a little more information, although it too is variable. In a 2010 study by the Jesuit Refugee Service, for example, 25% of their sample drawn from 22 countries were women, although it’s not clear that that was an average, or simply a result of their sampling system. In the UK, women make up around 10% of the total detained population in immigration removal centres (IRCs), although we can be less sure of their proportion of those individuals held in prison under Immigration Act powers. Whereas women make up a large proportion of irregular migrants in Greece, research conducted in the main immigrant holding centre in Athens in 2012 found a similar rate of detention to the UK, at around 10% of the confined population in that one establishment. Reliable figures from elsewhere (e.g., at the border) are harder to find.

In contrast, figures from 2012 drawn from the Office of the Refugee Commissioner in Malta by Alison Gerard suggest that 22% of detainees there are women. This calculation is based on the fact that asylum seekers face mandatory detention on arrival, and that year 456 women applied for asylum out of the total of 2,080.

Women doing the 'Race for Life' Photo from yarlswood.co.uk

Women doing the ‘Race for Life’ (Source: yarlswood.co.uk)

In Italy, figures provided by Alessandro Spena, taken from a report released by Istat, ‘I detenuti nelle carceri  italiane’, reveal that at the end of December 2011 95.8% of the detainees in Italian prisons were male. There were approximately 50 female detainees with a baby/child under three years with them (these women are detained in dedicated spaces) and 13 pregnant female detainees. It is not clear how many women pass through more transient spaces, for example in Lampedusa. Finally, according to Thomas Ugelvik, who is currently conducting research in Norway’s only closed detention centre, women make up 4 to 8 places out of 127. Although there are spaces for families in Trandum, he says, they are rarely occupied.

Clearly, such figures are mainly estimates. While some governments provide country-specific data, they vary enormously in how transparent and up to date they are.  In France, figures are always some years old, while in the UK, the Home Office continues to separate the detail of those who are detained in prison from the IRC figures.  Elsewhere it is not always clear numbers are being recorded.  Currently academic work on detnetion is primarily qualitative and theoretical.  Yet, as we know from other examples, without reliable data, it is often difficult to understand (let alone critique) policy or practice.  It may be time to focus our attention on statistics.   Any volunteers?

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bosworth M (2013) The Numbers Game: How Many Women and Children are in Detention in Europe. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/the-numbers-game/ ‎(Accessed [date]).

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  1. Pingback: Developing European Standards of Detention | Border Criminologies

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