New testimonies from former prisoners and anti-racist activists once again denounce the daily beatings, humiliations, and degradations that take place in these places with total impunity.

By Alejandra Mateo Fano/El Salto diario

In mid-February, the brutal beatings suffered by more than 50 migrants at the Aluche Immigration Centre (CIE) in Madrid at the hands of a group of eleven National Police agents came to light through a few media reports. The assaults, which included blows, kicks to the head, and punches – one of the detainees had to be taken out of the center unconscious and bleeding – took place on 14 February and were denounced by several NGOs to the 20th Court of Justice of the European Union.

Listening to the testimonies, Amir (pseudonym), a former inmate of the Aluche CIE from Cameroon, does not show the slightest sign of surprise. According to the 32-year-old sportsman, who has been living in Spain for more than ten years, beatings, torture, and humiliation are the order of the day in these centers, where inmates are abandoned to their fate in the face of the officers’ abuse of power. “The National Police act without any control inside the CIEs, it is quite normal for several of them to grab you by the legs, drag you, and beat you like animals,” she says. This spiral of violence, as common as it is heartbreaking, is the result of an institutional system in which migrants are automatically dehumanized and reduced to a mere number the moment they set foot on Spanish soil in an irregular manner. Other victims of the Madrid CIE, which houses migrants from countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, Nigeria, Ecuador, Senegal, Congo, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, also said that they were repeatedly subjected to extremely humiliating xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic remarks that end up undermining the self-esteem of the inmates.

As many anti-racist groups and the victims of these detention centers have been denouncing for years, the ‘illegal’ status of migrants seems to legitimize all kinds of discriminatory practices in the eyes of the Spanish state, which are rarely denounced. In its report ‘Represión y encierro’, Mundo Migrante describes the CIEs as inherently racist migration apparatuses that operate within a system of domination in which migrants occupy a position of inferiority. The study also shows that although institutional violence is intensified during the months of detention, people living in an irregular administrative situation suffer violence in their daily lives at the hands of the police, both inside and outside the centers.

A system designed to conceal xenophobic violence

Life inside a CIE is like a huge, chaotic safe, with only a few people having the key and no one knowing what goes on behind closed doors. The opacity of what goes on behind the walls of the centers and the impunity with which the police authorities carry out their duties are characteristic of the way the centers operate. According to numerous testimonies, human rights violations committed by members of the National Police are more than common in a place where there are no bodies or institutions responsible for supervising the work of the police, who are the only ones present in the center, apart from the various NGOs that provide humanitarian aid, but only in the rooms provided for this purpose.

CIEs are state institutions and are managed, organized, and supervised by the National Police. Given this fact, the lack of control over the police authority makes it extremely difficult to exercise control over the functions of the agents. The existence of security cameras inside the center is useless, as there are no outsiders to check them and they are not the same people who are supposedly committing the attacks, a nonsense that leaves the attacked migrants helpless.

The residents, who live under a de facto prison-like regime – with the peculiarity that these people have committed no more than an administrative offense of crossing the border illegally – are deprived of their mobile phones from the moment they enter, must share a tiny room with up to eight people and are repeatedly denied phone calls to their families and lawyers. “The people who live there live the same or worse than in prisons, they even have the same schedules, although those of us who are inmates haven’t committed any crime”, denounces Amir, who, after having been in several cities in Spain, including Melilla, points out that the most violent and unhealthy is undoubtedly Aluche, where “they don’t even clean the toilets and it’s very cold in winter because they constantly remove the heating”.

Article 16 of Royal Decree 162/2014, of 14 March, which approves the operating rules and internal regulations of detention centers for foreigners, states that inmates have the right “to be guaranteed respect for their life, physical integrity and health, without being subjected in any way to, humiliating or degrading treatment, and to respect for their dignity and privacy” and “not to be subjected to discrimination on any ground, including racial or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation or identity, ideology, religion or belief, illness, disability or any other personal or social circumstance”. According to the testimonies of several people who have been in CIEs, even the “less violent” policies of these centers flagrantly violate this law. They should therefore be denounced as a direct attack on the dignity of migrants.

Demonstration against CIEs in Aluche, Madrid. Photo: Gloria Moronta, Hemisferio Zero, 04/03/2012.

The aforementioned law also stipulates that “they may have their minor children with them, provided that the Public Prosecutor’s Office gives a favorable opinion on such a measure and that the center has modules that guarantee family unity and intimacy”. However, as Amir explains, “the children stay with the mothers in the women’s modules, many of them are taken away if they do not have documents proving that they belong to them and which they may not have with them because they have had to migrate for a very long time in very difficult conditions”.

The children’s parents cannot see them because they are in another building and are not allowed to visit them. Amnesty International goes further in this regard and considers that in the case of families arriving in a country with children in their care, detention should never be considered, regardless of their administrative status, because of their particular vulnerability and because the best interests of the child must prevail over their irregular administrative status. This organization has on several occasions publicly called on the competent authorities to take the necessary measures to reduce the exposure of migrants to human rights violations and abuses, especially in the case of women and minors.

When he recalls with horror the episodes of police violence he witnessed during his detention, Amir always recalls the case of a Nigerian woman who had just arrived from Italy. She was pregnant at the time and could barely speak or understand Spanish. One day, when she decided to ask for her lawyer to be present, four policemen grabbed her hands and started beating her violently, shouting racist threats like “We’re going to send you back to your fucking country and you have to shut up”. At other times, the officers take residents to their rooms – known to migrants as cells – where they beat and kick them if any of them resist. Amir, who hopes to work in the field of human rights in the future to defend those who are defenseless in the CIEs, claims that in these rooms “migrants are treated like garbage, they always use language based on threats and attacks to commit all kinds of acts”.

Even if they are undocumented, all people arriving in Spain have legal rights and guarantees that must be respected according to the rules of the detention centers themselves. These guarantees apply from the moment the person is detained and deprived of liberty upon arrival in the country. Some of these rights, which are seldom known by the detainees themselves, who believe that they have no protection because of their irregular status, are the right to legal assistance or the right not to be detained if they suffer from a previously unknown illness or disability. Of course, they must be treated with dignity and their right to privacy must be respected, which is far from the current reality in detention centers.

“Any detainee whose rights are violated in these centers has a mechanism to denounce such violence by filing a complaint with the center’s management,” explains Loueila Mint El Mam, a lawyer specializing in immigration law. However, the lawyer also points out that, in most cases, the defenselessness of the individual due to a lack of knowledge of the language, the inability of many public defenders to communicate, and the fear of reprisals mean that the daily violations of these rights are not reported. Furthermore, Loueila maintains that “it is tough to fight for rights when you are dehumanized inside the centers themselves and do not feel worthy of these rights, which is why people in these centers, when they suffer violence, do not want to go to court, they want to go unnoticed”.

Red Cross: from inaction to complicit silence

All this violence takes place on a daily and hyper-normalized basis within the centers, with the connivance of organizations that are supposed to provide protection and assistance to migrants, such as the Red Cross. This NGO, which operates inside the Aluche CIE, has been criticized on numerous occasions by the detainees themselves for its passivity and silent complicity in the face of police aggression. “They are inside, they know everything that happens, and yet they never denounce anything, nor do they offer real help to people, because they only help when the person’s situation is legally channeled,” says Amir.

The NGOs that work inside the CIEs play a vital role when there are violations of inmates’ rights because the officials are part of the national police and those who control them are also from the police, so “the only people from the outside who can enter these centers and denounce what happens inside are NGOs like this one,” the lawyer explains. Fortunately, some organizations are genuinely committed to the defense of foreigners and their human rights, which has criticized the police violence in the CIEs. This combative stance against the abuses of the National Police is reflected in reports such as those published by the Pueblos Unidos Centre of the San Juan del Castillo Foundation, which reveal many of the failings and shortcomings that occur daily in these places.

Demonstration against CIEs in Aluche, Madrid, 04/03/2012. Photo: Gloria Moronta, Hemisferio Zero, on flickr.

Ban on CIEs, utopia, or near future?

As the number of cases of extreme violence against migrants in CIEs increases every year, so does the number of voices questioning the xenophobic nature of these centers. Many of these dissenting voices, most of which come from anti-racist movements in Spain, call for the closure of CIEs because they are inherently violent institutions. According to many activists and organizations, CIEs perpetuate the racist notion that it is legitimate to imprison people simply because they have entered a territory illegally. As Mundo en Movimiento’s report notes, detention has an ultimate purpose, which is the manifestation of the state’s absolute power over migrants through the fear, coercion, and repression that detention entails. An anecdotal but profoundly symptomatic example of the omnipotent power of the national police inside the centers is that the officers themselves sell tobacco to the residents in the communal areas and break the tobacco vending machines so that they can do business.

For Antoinette, president of the anti-racist digital community Afroféminas, the centers, which she describes as “concentration camps”, are governed and operate based on an unjust and colonial immigration policy that allows for all kinds of abuse: “From the moment the inmates are seen as people to be watched and not cared for, the system is corrupt because the institutions are not prepared to see us as respectable human beings who need to be treated with dignity,” the activist says. For her, “the centers are inherently racist because they start from the premise that we need to be locked up”. Faced with this reality, the migrants’ rights organization Mundo en Movimiento will propose that the state stop opening new CIEs, but will also demand the development of a system that addresses the management of the migratory phenomenon by putting migrants at the center, to make effective progress in the construction of global citizenship.

Furthermore, Article 15(1) of Directive 2008/115/EC stipulates that detention is only appropriate when other less coercive measures cannot be applied and are intended solely as a preventive measure to prepare for the return of the person in case of a risk of absconding or when the migrant prevents or obstructs the preparation of the return or the expulsion procedure. Thus, some human rights legal documents, such as the Manual for the Defense of the Human Rights of Foreigners in Detention Centers, emphasize the legality of developing non-coercive preventive measures as an alternative to detention and as a means of migration control more in line with the protection of human rights.

The original article can be found here