Practical steps that foster effective results: The Council of Europe’s guidance on alternatives

Written by Jem Stevens and Barbara Pilz

The Council of Europe has published a new handbook outlining key principles and processes to implement alternatives to detention (ATD) in the context of migration. What does it add for civil society working to reduce immigration detention through alternatives?

From theory to practice

The Practical Guidance on Alternatives to Immigration Detention: Fostering Effective Results is based on the Council of Europe’s in-depth Analysis of legal and practical aspects of effective alternatives to detention in the context of migration, adopted in 2018. But its central focus is practical implementation. The handbook aims to help fill the implementation gap in relation to ATD by providing “concise and visual” user-friendly guidance to governments on how to develop alternatives that allow states to manage migration without over-reliance on detention.

A focus on process

Within this practical focus, a key innovation of the new guidance is that it looks at processes for developing alternatives to detention. Recognising the need for context-specific actions and tailor-made approaches, it sets out key questions and steps that are at the heart of a developing successful ATD. This includes questions for scoping national contexts and practical steps for governments to plan and test new programmes – manageable steps that governments could take to start moving away from detention. This is a welcome shift from the common focus on ‘examples’ of ATD, given that there are no one size fits all transferable models in this field.

   Cover of the analysis report (Council of Europe, 2019)

Reinforcing need for trust and support

The Practical Guidance reinforces the need for trust and support in alternatives to detention that ensure dignity and rights, while better achieving government migration management goals. It uses the six essential elements of effectiveness identified by the Analysis and underscores that a “central cross-cutting element for the effective implementation of alternatives to detention is building trust […] through a spirit of fairness and mutual co-operation”. As a practical step, the handbook suggests meaningful consultation with diverse stakeholders, particularly migrant communities that may support individuals to engage with immigration processes.

Growing momentum

As such, it contributes to growing emphasis regionally on engagement-based alternatives. This was evident, for example, at a conference on Effective Alternatives to Detention of Migrants held in Strasbourg in April 2019. The conference was attended by over 200 participants, mainly representatives of national governments, with high-level participation from the European Commission and Council of Europe organisers.

A milestone event in terms of ATD, the ‘key messages’ from the conference include that “to be effective, alternatives to detention should adopt a holistic and person-centred approach based on responsibility and trust” and that “there is space to adopt engagement-based methods to a greater extent, including dedicated case management that can enhance effectiveness”.

Contributions and way forward

The Practical Guidance was adopted by governments for governments, through the Council of Europe’s foremost human rights body; the Steering Committee on Human Rights. With its focus on trust-based approaches and process for practical implementation, it could prove to be a useful tool for NGOs advocating for engagement-based alternatives as part of a strategy for change on detention.