Inside Spain’s immigration detention centres


They are buildings with barred windows but they are not prisons. The people inside have been deprived of their freedom but they are not prisoners. But they have committed an administrative offence; they do not have a permit to reside legally in Spain. They are "undocumented immigrants".

Each of Spain’s immigrant detention centres, Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros (CIE), hold as many as 2,500 people. There are eight in total, located in Madrid, Barcelona, Murcia, Valencia, Algeciras, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. At present, journalists are not being granted the authorisation required to enter any of these centres.

On 3 December, the body of an Armenian citizen Alik Manukyan was found in a cell of Barcelona’s CIE. The circumstances of his death remain unclear. The police claim it was a suicide, but migrants from the detention centre as well as various organisations do not believe this version of events.

Dozens of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona to ask the authorities for a serious investigation.

The absence of specific legislation and the opacity of the CIEs have given rise to abuses, as repeatedly denounced by Spain’s Ombudsman, numerous non-governmental organisations and international bodies.

The annual report of the NGO Pueblos Unidos, Trapped behind Bars. The 2012 Report on the Detention Centres (CIE) in Spain, reveals data contributing to the debate on this issue.

"One thousand people are placed in the CIEs every month; just over half are ultimately deported," states the report. The maximum stay in Spain’s immigrant detention centres is 60 days.

"I am not a criminal"

Inside a CIE, detainees lose their name and are identified by a number, making communication difficult with the outside world, if, for example, the families of detainees are unaware of their predicament. They are given no concrete explanation regarding their legal situation and many do not have the name and telephone number of their lawyers.

In 2012, members of Pueblos Unidos visited 10 per cent of the people detained in the Madrid CIE during visiting hours. Forty one per cent of those visited were from sub-Saharan Africa, followed by around 30 per cent from Latin America, 18 per cent from the Maghreb, six per cent from Asia and five per cent from eastern Europe.

At the Aluche CIE, in Madrid, there is a patio for the men, which they can access in two shifts, and another very small one for the women. The detainees sleep in dormitories with bunk beds for six to eight people, divided into four men’s sections and one women’s section.

Mobile telephones are forbidden. Medical treatment being received by people suffering from chronic illnesses is interrupted. There is no separation between detainees with criminal records and the others.

Nor are all the rooms equipped with surveillance cameras, which are crucial for the prevention of physical and sexual abuse as well the investigation of complaints.

Samba Martine died at the CIE in Madrid on 19 December, 2011. She was 34 years old. She had spent three months in the short-term detention centre for immigrants (CETI) in Melilla and 40 days in detention at the CIE in Aluche.

The staff at the CETI in Melilla knew she was seriously ill, following the results of a medical check-up conducted on her arrival, but up until this summer there was no protocol in place for information exchanges between the centres.

She had a husband and a nine-year-old daughter, Bijoux, living in France. They were not able to attend her funeral.

"These centres should not exist, or should be extremely limited. The practice of automatic or arbitrary detention should not be resorted to, there are alternatives," insists Virginia Álvarez, Head of Domestic Policy at Amnesty International Spain.

Criticising the lack of political strategies, Álvarez points out that, "There are families with minors living in CIEs for months in Europe."

Gateway to Europe

At the end of the 1990s, Spain became an attractive destination for millions of immigrants who saw the strong economic growth as an opportunity to build a better future for themselves.

In 2006, 38 per cent of immigrants were European, 36 per cent were Latin American, drawn by the language and cultural links, and almost 15 per cent were African (mostly from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa).

For African immigrants, the Spanish coast, along with the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Africa, represent a gateway to Europe.

In 2012, 3,804 irregular migrants reached the Spanish coast (30 per cent less than the previous year), risking their lives by making the crossing in small vessels under extreme conditions.

The number of people trying to irregularly enter Ceuta and Melilla, hidden in cars or other vehicles or by jumping the border fence, also fell in 2012, to 2,841.

At the beginning of the year, the number of foreigners legally residing in Spain exceeded 5.1 million, almost 11 per cent of the total population, according to the national statistics organisation, Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE).

Heading the list of countries were Romania and Morocco, with more than 750,000 citizens each, followed by the United Kingdom, Ecuador and Colombia. There are no real figures, however, on the number of foreigners residing irregularly in Spain.

"Foreign-born residents constituted over 13 per cent of the population at the beginning of 2009 in Spain," according to a 2010 report on migratory flows La dinámica de los flujos migratorios de entrada en España.

With regards to applications in 2012, there were 2,588 (a 24.37 per cent fall on the previous year), of which 2,056 were approved.

The five countries with the highest numbers requesting international protection were: Syria (254 as compared with 97 the previous year), Algeria (202 as compared with 122 the previous year, Nigeria (293), Cameroon (121) and Ivory Coast (109).

Fewer speeches and more policies

Spain’s interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, called for "responsibility and above all shared solidarity on the part of the whole European Union" towards countries like "Italy and Spain, which are Europe’s external border and come under the greatest pressure from the wave of migration," during the meeting of the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Ministers held in October in Luxembourg.

As denounced by the Spanish trade union centre CCOO in an official communiqué, "The European Union lacks a joint regulatory framework governing the management of migration flows and allowing regularised and fluid access to workers from third countries: it is holding on to the unrealistic policy of ’zero immigration’, which promotes the growth of irregular entries and the flourishing of people trafficking rings, giving rise to tragedies such as Lampedusa."

The CCOO is advocating measures to avoid social exclusion and to address "the fact that the European Union, whose main action rests on border control, lacks a real and effective immigration policy enabling proper management of migration flows."