Immigration Internment Centers, on the borderline of human rights

Since 2006 Barcelona houses one of nine Immigration Internment Centres in Spain (called Centres d’Internament d’Estrangers CIE in catalan) of Spain. Located in the Zona Franca, are buildings where immigrants are detained either for not having legal documentation, or when they have an expulsion order. Three people have died in the centre in questionable conditions and such abuses have been denounced by interns. The controversy that surrounds these centres starts because the Spanish government, the institution which regulates the CIEs, has no official regulations on the subject. Violations of human rights have been denounced by judges, NGOs, the Catalan ombudsman and political parties.

Aina Valldaura and Victòria Oliveres

Barcelona (CNA).- Since 2006 an Immigration Internment Centre (in Catalan Centres d’Internament d’Estrangers – CIE) is located in the port- based neighbourhood of Zona Franca in Barcelona. It is a place where immigrants are detained either for not having legal documentation, which is only an administrative fault, or when they have an expulsion order. There are nine CIEs in Spain all under the competence of the Spanish government. Three people have died in the centre in questionable conditions and abuses have been denounced by interns. Official rules and regulations are not set out so each centre functions under the rule of its director. Many violations of human rights have been denounced by judges, NGOs, the Catalan ombudsman and political parties.

An Immigration Internment Centre (in Catalan called Centre d’Internament d’Estrangers – CIE) is a place where immigrants are detained for two different reasons: to ensure that those with an expulsion order are expelled from the country or to guarantee the return of those who have tried to enter the country in an illegal way (for example, by dinghy or by arriving at the airport without documentation). But actually, not having documentation is just an administrative fault, usually resolved with fines and not by imprisonment.

One of these centres is located in Barcelona, in the port neighbourhood of Zona Franca. It was opened in 2006 to substitute one that was located in a police station underground and has a capacity of 226 people. The Spanish Ministry for Home Affairs is the institution responsible, through the Main Office of the Spanish Police. It defines them as “public establishments of a non-penitentiary nature” and establishes what they see as a purely preventive role.

Reality is that the building looks very similar to a jail. The rooms look like cells with heavy bars and people detained can only communicate with their relatives according to a strict fixed timetable and with a partition between them. One difference is that they are directly directed and controlled by Spanish police officers, instead of civil servants, as is the case in jails.

The last reform of the immigration law was in 2009. It established 60 days as the maximum time a person can be stay held. It also introduced a tribunal responsible for controlling the intern and laying down an obligation for the government to dictate a regulation for the CIEs operation in a six month period. Five years after the reform there is still no regulation. So there is a legal loophole in these matters and each centre is directed following the individual ideas of its supervisors. The Spanish Minister for Home Affairs stated that the CIE in Barcelona “guarantees all rights” but is also committed to improving prisoner’s quality of life “considering the budget restraints”.

Controversy surrounds the CIEs

Aramis Maukyan, also called Alik, is the name of the last immigrant found dead in one of the isolation cells of the Immigration Internment Centre in Zona Franca last December. Police reported that Alik committed suicide although prisoners in adjoining next cells declared that agents hit Alik until late that night and heard the victim screaming for hours before the silence of death.

The curious case of this young Armenian is not an exception. Since 2006 two other people have died in this centre. Mohammed Abagui, was found dead in May 2010 also in an isolation cell and Idrissa Diallo died in his cell due to respiratory problems.  Three deaths that have something in common: the constant contradiction between the version of the police and prisoners.

Apart from these three fatal cases, the Zona Franca Centre has a long register of abuses and maltreatment. The most recent case happened this New Year’s Eve when six prisoners declared in front of the judge that they had been attacked and hit by the police that night to take them out of the community showers. The riot police also took part in the disturbances. Due to the seriousness of the events the judge order not to deport any of the injured prisoners but ignoring the court order two of them were expelled from the country before having the opportunity to testify. These fast deportations are a common reaction of the authorities when something unclear happens in the centre.

Voices against

After the New Year’s Eve attacks the two judges in charge of the Immigration Internment Centre in Zona Franca drew up a report which forces the authorities to improve the living conditions in this centre like extending the visiting hours between the inmates and their families, installing toilets in cells- according to judges, the fact that police officers accompany the inmate to do their needs “violates human dignity” and installing bigger boilers for the showers. The report also points out that only one of the isolation cells has a security camera and that the centre has no antisuicide protocol.

These are only some of the demands reported by the NGO Close CIE (Tanquem el CIE in Catalan). This organization aims to make the Immigration Internment Centre more familiar to the majority of society because they are in isolated areas of difficult access, to report the violation of human rights, to improve living conditions and above all to close this type of centres.  

NGOs are not the only ones that denounce the lack of transparency around the Zona Franca CIE. The Catalan Ombudsman has qualified this centre as completely “illegal” and added that “this centre is an inadmissible shame, not only in moral terms, but also for the violation of rights”. He considers that “a democratic society cannot have this type of centres”.

One of the examples of this opacity is that the Catalan Authority for the Prevention of Torture, an institution which belongs to the Catalan Ombudsman, has never had the possibility to go into the CIE, a fact they denounce in their annual report. The only organizations that have permanent access to this centre are the NGO SOS Racism and Migra Studium both of which are dedicated to the protection of human rights.

The Catalan Parliament is not competent on this matter but the CIE in Barcelona is mostly debated and the different parties stand up for contrasting positions. The Catalan Green Socialist Party (ICV) and the Radical Left-wing and Independence Party (CUP) and the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) defend the closing of this centre; the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU) demands that the supervision of its operation to be transferred to the Catalan government and the Catalan branch of the Conservative People’s Party (PPC) adopts the same position as the Spanish government.

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