Main Debates

  • Is detention a penalty within the meaning of Art. 31 of the 1951 Geneva Convention?
  • Under what circumstances and for how long may asylum seekers be detained?
  • Is it lawful to use detention for the purpose of deterrence?

Main Points

  • Refugees are often subject to penalties for illegal entry contrary to the 1951 Geneva Convention
  • Detention of children and other vulnerable populations
  • Standards for conditions of detention


  1. UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 150. Arts 26, 31, 36.
  2. OHCHR, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, Art. 9.

Soft Law

  1. United Nations Human Rights Committee, ’General Comment No. 35: Article 9: Liberty and Security of Person’, CCPR/C/GC/35, 28 October 2014.
  2. United Nations Human Rights Council, ’Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’, A/HRC/10/21, 16 February 2009.
  3. UNHCR, Executive Committee, ‘Detention of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers’, Conclusion No. 44 (XXXVII) – 1986.
  4. United Nations Human Rights Committee, ‘General Comment No. 27, Article 12 (Freedom of Movement)’, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.9 (1999), 2 November 1999.
  5. OHCHR, ‘Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty’, UN General Assembly Resolution, A/RES/45/113, 14 December 1990.
  6. UN Commission on Human Rights, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Deliberation No. 5, ‘Situation Regarding Immigrants and Asylum Seekers’, E/CN.4/2000/4, Annex II, 28 December 1999.
  7. UNHCHR, ‘Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment’, UN General Assembly Resolution, A/RES/43/173, 9 December 1988.

UNHCR Documents

  1. UNHCR, ‘Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers and Alternatives to Detention’, 2012.
  2. UNHCR and OHCHR, Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons: Summary Conclusions’, July 2011.
  3. UNHCR, ’Beyond Detention: A Global Strategy to support governments to end the detention of asylum-seeker and refugees’, 2014-2018, 2014.
  4. UNHCR, ’Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) and the International Detention Coalition (IDC), Monitoring Immigration Detention: Practical Manual’, 2014.


  1. Zimbabwe Exiles Forum v. Minister of Home Affairs, 27294/2008, [2011] ZAGPPHC 29, 10 February 2011, (High Court of South Africa (North Guateng, Pretoria)) (unlawful to arrest and detain asylum seekers without verifying their status or granting access to the refugee system).
  2. Refugee Council New Zealand Inc., The Human Rights Foundation of Aotearoa New Zealand Inc., and ‘D’ v. Attorney General, M1881-AS01, 31 May 2002 (High Court of New Zealand). (NZ judicial decision limiting detention to rare cases where necessary to prevent flight or commission of crime).
  3. C. v. Australia, HRC, Views of 28 October 2002, no. 900/1999, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/76/D/900/1999 (2002). (Lengthy detention causing mental illness is violation of Art. 9).
  4. Torres v. Finland, HRC, Views of the Human Rights Committee under Article 5, Paragrph 4, of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thirty-Eighth Session, 5 April 1990, no. 291/1988 (Failure of state to provide alien in detention for more than five days a right of access to the court proceedings for judicial review of the lawfulness of his detention constitutes a violation of Art. 9).
  5. A. v. Australia, HRC, Views of 30 April 1997, no. 560/1993. (Absence of individual consideration of reasons for detention of asylum seekers constitutes a violation of Art. 9).



  1. E. Acer and J. Goodman, ‘Reaffirming Rights: Human Rights Protections of Migrants, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees in Immigration Detention’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 24, no. 4 (2010).


  1. A. Edwards ‘Less Coercive Means’: The Legal Case for Alternatives to Detention of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Other Migrants’ Research Companion on Migration Theory and Policy. Ed. S. Juss. Ashgate, 2012.
  2. A. Edwards, ‘Measures of First Resort: Alternatives to Immigration Detention in Comparative Perspective’, Equal Rights Review, vol. 7 (2011), pp. 117-142.
  3. M. Flynn, ’Who must be detained? Proportionality as a Tool for Critiquing Immigration Detention Policy’, Refugee Survey Quarterly (2012), vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 40-68.
  4. A. Nethery, B. Rafferty-Brown, & S. Taylor, Exporting Detention: Australia-funded Immigration Detention in Indonesia, Journal of Refugee Studies (2013), vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 88-109.
  5. M. Bull, E. Schindeler, D. Berkman, & J. Ransley, Sickness in the System of Long-term Immigration Detention, Journal of Refugee Studies (2013), vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 47-68.
  6. R. Levitan and S. Tabak, ‘LGBTI Migrants in Immigration Detention’, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, vol. 37, p.1.
  7. A. Edwards, 'Back to Basics: The Right to Liberty and Security of Person and 'Alternatives to Detention' of Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Stateless Persons and Other Migrants', April 2011, PPLA/2011/01.Rev.1.
  8. C. Costello, 'Building Empirical Research into Alternatives to Detention: Perceptions of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in Toronto and Geneva', June 2013, PPLA/2013/02.
  9. Amnesty International, ‘Migration-Related Detention: A Research Guide on Human Rights Standards Relevant to the Detention of Migrants, Asylum-seekers and Refugees’, November 2007.
  10. J. Hathaway, 'The Rights of Refugees under International Law', (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 413–439.
  11. A. Naumik, ‘International Law and Detention of U.S. Asylum Seekers: Contrasting Matter of D-J – with the United Nations Refugee Convention’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 19, no. 4 (2007), pp. 661–702.
  12. S. Vohra, ‘Detention of Irregular Migrants and Asylum Seekers’, in R. Cholewinski and R. Perruchoud (eds), International Migration Law: Developing Paradigms and Key Challenges (The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2007), pp. 49–69.

Editor’s Note

See Section VI.2.5.1, for an overview of European detention practices.

 II.2.7	DetentionII.2.7 Detention