A Swiss prison will no longer hold children under the age of 15 pending their deportation with a parent. The director of the Thun regional prison made the decision weeks after a parliamentary committee blasted the administrative detention of rejected asylum-seekers who are minors.
"I've informed the district administration that I'm no longer willing to continue to offer the mothers' and children's rooms,” Ulrich Kräuchi told Swiss public television, SRF.
The Thun prison formerly offered a mother-child cell – equipped with a crib, some toys and a play rug – with good intentions as separating families would have been a more distressing alternative, he explained. Mothers facing deportation from canton Bern and other cantons were brought here five times.
"There was a certain amount of suffering in various cantons," said Kräuchi. "When difficult deportations were due, which also affected mothers with children, we realised that one is a little helpless because nobody had a place for them."
The decision to stop this practice appears to have caught migration authorities in the canton of Bern, where the Thun prison is located, off guard. "The future treatment of people under 15 years of age in a family association will be clarified with the involvement of all the bodies involved,” it wrote in response to an SRF query.
Last month, a Swiss parliamentary committee criticised the use of administrative detention to hold young rejected asylum seekers saying this represented a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It urged the government to “put its house in order” and end the practice.
In a report on this issue, the House of Representatives’ Control Committee noted that a total of 200 underage asylum seekers had been held in Swiss prisons between 2011 and 2014, some for just a few days, because their deportation was imminent.
Bern is one of the cantons were children under the age of 15 could be imprisoned along with their relative, a practice defended as necessary by the local authorities to avoid splitting up families. Some cantons, however, refuse to detain minors ahead of a deportation.
"Am I doing something illegal here in Thun?” Krauchi asked himself after a wave of what he described as frightening criticism amid a media frenzy on the issue.
The cantons are in a legal grey area with their administrative detention for children under 15, notes Alberto Achermann, President of the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture and Professor of Migration Law.
Children under the age of 15 should not be taken into administrative custody by law. "However, there are situations in which cantons have to arrest a whole family until a deportation flight is possible after a few days,” Achermann told SRF.
“There is a legal ambiguity as to what kind of detention is to be applied here and how it is to be enforced,” he added.
Achermann is aware that a prison cell is not the right environment for a child, even if for a short window of time pending deportation. He says a viable alternative would be to provide an entire floor for families in federal asylum centres. This should be secure enough so that a family can be taken in for forced repatriation.
"Other countries have real family facilities for this, such as Belgium or Austria, which are not prisons," he pointed out.
For now, in canton Bern, there is a wait and see approach. The cases are "known to be extremely rare and intended as a last resort for enforcement," wrote the police and military directorate in a statement to SRF.