La Lupa

The Future for Asylum Seekers

By: Lizzie Heidenreich, South Dakota State University 



All over the world, over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and many have become refugees or asylum seekers in other countries. Asylum seekers face a huge risk when they apply for asylum, yet it is insubstantial to the risks posed to them in their native country. Although they are escaping their native countries for mostly the same reasons, asylum seekers are those who have not yet been granted refugee status. Refugees have already been granted their refugee and international protection status from returning to their native country before reaching their host country and asylum seekers apply for that status by entering the country. Considering how long it takes asylum seekers to be granted a protected status and for their cases to be reviewed, they are put into detention centers for extended periods of time, where they are treated like criminals. These people are stripped of their dignity and their maltreatment is frequently covered up. People should be able to find refuge in their new country and be welcome; instead, they are frequently treated as an animal rather than a person.



Asylum seekers must go to the country where they hope to seek refuge and are required to report themselves to the police to apply for asylum, this result in many of them being detained in prisons and treated like criminals just for wanting to escape the violence of their native country. The United States detained approximately 330,000 immigrants each year in private-run, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-run or city-run prisons. 44,000 are asylum seekers. According to the ICE, only about 15% of these people are classified as highest-threat level and about 51% are only detained due to mandatory detention and are classified as non-criminal or non-threat. These people in the detention centers are treated the same as criminals: they can only work for a few dollars a day and have extremely limited freedoms. Greece has approximately 14,864 immigrants detained in holding cells, 4,072 of that number are asylum seekers. The average length of their stay in holding in Greece is 3 to 18 months. Italy has approximately 5,242 immigrants detained and about 150 of those are asylum seekers. The average stay here is 12 months for asylum seekers and 90 days for those about to be deported. In the United Kingdom, approximately 32,526 immigrants are detained and 13,636 of those are asylum seekers. For certain cases, there is no limit to how long the detainees can stay and in other cases; the limit is over 18 months. In Spain, about 7,597 immigrants are detained and about 769 are asylum seekers. The average length of stay in a Spain detention center is 24 days but the maximum amount allowed is 18 months.


Mental and Physical Health

In these detention centers, asylum seekers are frequently given no social support and little to no information about their status. This is due to maltreatment being easily covered up since they are not a citizen of the country or having refugee status. The conditions of the detention centers are bleak and cause an outbreak of depression within the detainees due to them missing their home and family, worry about their life outcome, inability to fix their situation for themselves, or their loved ones, and being treated as less than human. This results in many failed attempts at suicide causing an even worsened state of health. Most of these people are denied their basic human rights. Women frequently face sexual assaults and the detainees are frequently subjected to torture-like treatment from the guards. Government officials often pressure detainees into withholding their claims in an effort to keep the system running. For little access to the outside world, even visitors are subject to scrutiny from the officials working the prisons. In some detention centers in the UK, detainees are given access to a library and a computer with internet but many sites that could be helpful to their situation are blocked. For example, all social media and communication sites are blocked such as Skype and IRC visitor groups, some non-profit organization sites are blocked, news sights, and Amnesty International;  among the sites that are blocked, many do not pose an apparent threat to cause the blocking.

These people are not asked about or given any psychological support for the traumas they experienced while in their native country, on their way to the country of refuge, or the ones they face in the detention centers. These people experience intense traumas such as seeing terrible deaths, destruction and sexual assaults that leave them stressed and with no way to work through the traumatic events or talk about them.

In the British detention centers, when a detainee asks an officer for medical attention, the officer must record the request and send it to a medical team. There the team decides if it is bad enough for attention. Frequently, the system fails these people because they are neglect of the needed health care and medical attention.

In Greece, hygiene products are insufficiently distributed within the facilities such as Amygdaleza pre-removal detention center, also in the center, doctors and nurse only occasionally come to visit. In the Corinth pre-removal center of Greece, detainees are not given any personal hygiene products, three-fifths of the showers do not work and the holding rooms that are only suitable for four people contain 12. The facility does not have a regular doctor visit and the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention stopped sending representatives back in 2015. A court case, called Mahmundi and Others v. Greece, found that in the Pagani detention center was in violation of Article 3 of the Convention, which meant they were providing inhumane or degrading treatment, along with in violation of Article 13 of the Convention, which gave the residents the right to an effective remedy. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or degrading Treatment of Punishment (CPT) visited the center in 2009 and found it had not improved from its deplorable conditions that had been present in the 2008 report where it was incredibly filthy.

Detainees behind the fence at Amygdaleza detention center, Greece; February 2015
Source: WikiMedia; Unknown Photographer

In some Italian detention centers, reports have been given about detainees receiving torture at the hands of the police. Twenty-four people have come forward with testimonies to Amnesty International about the Italian police using torture methods such as electric shock, brutal force, genital torture, and sexual humiliation or denying food or water for several days in the attempt to fingerprint the individuals. In the Brindisi Restinico center, the surveys that took place described the problems infecting the center; the results showed that 15 of 46 (32%) detainees received psychiatric drugs, and many detainees reported of terrible hygiene conditions and insect infestations.

In Spain, by the Aliens Law, detainees are entitled to the assistance during their stay such as medical records, social and legal assistance. Still, reports by NGO´s have shown that these services are only available in facilities in Madrid and Barcelona, which are only two of the nine centers in Spain. The Archidona center, which holds numerous Algerian people, also is reported to have numerous problems affecting the health of these people such as improper heating systems or water, lack of proper health care for people with serious illnesses, along with placing underage Algerians in the facility even though they are required to be placed in a separate center.


Children and Minors

Children who go to the country that are seeking asylum are in the face of a large risk of neglect and violence if they are put into detention centers. In the United States, the ICE alone has nine facilities for juvenile detention. Only six of these centers have a policy in place for a maximum of a 72-hour stay, sadly the average length of stay for juveniles in the other three detention centers ranges from 100 to 240 days. These children are often without legal representation, information about their status, their family, and educational and psychological help. “Detained children have higher rates of suicide, suicide attempts and self-harm, mental disorder and developmental problems. Even very short periods of detention can undermine a child’s psychological and physical wellbeing and compromise their cognitive development.” [1] When centers take in children, they do an age assessment based by an X-ray of the child´s wrist. These age assessments can be problematic because they can be incorrect due to the child not developing as quickly from living malnourished, and the assessments do not calculate in the child´s psychological age. Even if the child has a certain chronological and physical age, the child´s psychological age could be much lower, making them unable to function at the level expected for their chronological age. This would cause tremendous problems when they are placed in a facility without proper care.

Italian law states it is also illegal to detain unaccompanied minors, but they are able to be housed in secure housing locations for up to sixty days. At the Pozzallo hotspot, 185 of the people kept there were unaccompanied children leaving them unprotected and vulnerable to violence. The Pozzallo center does not help those children who have experienced trauma. Robel, Eritrean boy of only twelve years old, told how he saw people die when he was on one of two wooden boats traveling by himself from Libya to Italy. Robel said, “Our journey was good but we saw the others die. The other boat we were pulling sank and we had to cut the rope.” [2] He has yet to discuss what he saw with anyone else because no one has asked him. The NGO, Terres de Hommes works with women and children in the Pozzallo center on a mental health project where a psychologist visits the center, but finding a private space for consultations is nearly impossible and there is too little help for what these people need.  “The psychologist said many women and girls are sexually abused on the journey and described a variety of mental health problems among the children, including depression, psychosomatic symptoms, nightmares, and paranoia.” [2] The minors who arrive to the hotspots should have the right to be given the ability to contact their families that they have arrived safe and be given psychological support for the traumas they experience.

In the United States, if an adult that came with the child cannot prove to be his or her biological parent or legal gaurdian to the child, the child is separated from the adult and considered unaccompanied. Reports from the DHS Office of Inspector General and other advocacy organizations show that these centers expose the terrible conditions these children are made to live in; lack of supplies such as proper sleeping, food and water sources, unhygienic living conditions such as unsanitary open toilets and lack of bathing abilities. These conditions fail to provide the children with their basic rights. “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an internationally recognized legal framework for the protection of children’s basic rights (ratified by every country in the world except for the United States), emphasizes freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 37), the provision of special protection to children seeking asylum (Article 22), humane and appropriate treatment of children in detention (Article 37), and guidelines regarding maintaining family unity (Article 9).” [3] Detention centers in these conditions can cause stunts in a child´s cognitive development along with trauma from the experience. Parents of these children can also fall into negative mental health due to their children being taken from them and their authority as a parent being removed. Many parents in detention experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harming tendencies, and anxiety.

Children sitting in a cage made of chain linked fences at the McAllen, Texas detention center.
Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Rio Grande Valley Sector

Danger for Women and Girls

Women and young girls face a much larger risk of sexual assault. This poses a bigger risk on their sanctity, likely hood of facing more traumas, and possibility of getting pregnant. Already, 35% of women globally have been victims of sexual violence: about 120 million girls have experienced a forced sexual act. These happen to women even when they have a safe place to go to and escape the violence, in detention centers where it is just bunk bed upon bunk bed, the women have no escape. In Greece, there are reports of women and young girls being detained and forced in a closed cell for sometimes weeks with men they do not know. These factors cause intense fear of what these men might and could do, resulting in sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, and in a couple of more intense cases, suicidal thoughts. These women do not feel safe because when they are the only woman or one of the few women in the facility; the men watch them intently. One woman told and NGO that she only feels safe to shower once or twice every few weeks, avoids drinking liquids to avoid needing the toilet, the women are frequently yelled at about their appearance, and even sexual assaults are all too common. Women with husbands have either the choice of being separated from their husband or being in a holding cell as the only women with mostly single men and unaccompanied boys. More female staff is needed in these facilities to help protect the detained women from the cruelty brought upon them, especially from corrupt officers whose view of these people have been degraded down to inhumane.

In Italy, children, pregnant women, or women who have just given birth in the past six months cannot be removed from the country, by law. That law protects them from the present danger of their home countries, but not the danger they could face in the detention center.  Human Rights Watch reporters visited the Pozzallo hotspot and spoke with many of the detained children. An Eritrean girl, just seventeen years old, told Human Rights Watch reporters about how men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us. … They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.” [2] The journey is also just as dangerous for these girls, and it is infrequent that people arrive at these centers without having seen or experiencing some traumatic event. Also at the Pozzallo hotspot, a sixteen year old girl named Mehert told of how she was raped near a refugee camp in Sudan, named Shagaraab. To these reporters, it is her first time discussing it, she had not even seen a doctor about it because, as she says, “If they don´t ask me, what am I going to say?” [2] Occurrences like these prove the need for a better system to protect these people and help them.


Why they leave their native country

About 55% of all worldwide refugees come from South Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan. According to the U. N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the total 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria in the wake of the war that has been occurring since 2011. Many of these people are forced to flee because the civil war has become so close it is destroying their homes and killing their families. Residents of Syria also began to have limited or no access to necessary supplies such as food, medicine, and sanitary supplies.

Approximately 2.5 million people have become refugees in the past seventeen years from Afghanistan due to the war which started when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001; in hopes of dismantling the al-Qaeda regime.  Afghanistan continues to have the second highest refugee rate in the world, behind Syria. The Taliban, still present in Afghanistan, have become more and more violent and seem to care less of the casualties they cause to civilians. The Taliban is working to weaken the government by bombing and attacking government ministries and the governmental forces, as of 2018, control less than 60% of the country.  Stories of casualties at religious ceremonies, deaths from an ambulance bombing or suicide bombing are all too common and destroy the lives of the civilians there.

South Sudan currently has a leave of refugees count at 2.4 million. In 2013, the South Sudanese Civil War began, which resulted in millions of people being internally or externally displaced from their homes in South Sudan. When people escape South Sudan they reveal the tragedies happening to the  citizens: armed groups terrorizing villages, burning houses to the ground that still contain the residents, killing people in front of their families, forcing boys to serve in the army, and raping women and young girls. South Sudan is also ravaged by a famine in parts of the country, leaving people hungry, without water, and giving rise to an outbreak of diseases.

In the United States, a majority of the people who are granted asylum are from China or from Latin American countries. 22% of asylum seekers in America are from China, 11% from El Salvador, 10% are from Guatemala, 7% from Honduras, and 5% are from Mexico.  Others countries include Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and many more from the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries that are torn apart by war.  People from the Latin American countries, notably all of them are attempting to escape gang violence, especially considering the homicide rates of these countries. As of 2016, El Salvador had the highest recorded intentional homicide rate of the world at 82.84 deaths per 100,000. Honduras is the second most intentional homicide dense region in the world with a rate of 56.52 deaths per 100,000. Guatemala and Mexico are also high in the ranks of recorded intentional homicide rates with 27.26 and 19.26 deaths per 100,000 people.  Although Mexico generally has about 20,000 more homicides in the country, the proportion of that to the country´s population is smaller. When interviewed by Doctors without Borders, 39.2% of migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) said they had received direct threats or attacks or extortion of gang-recruitment while in their country, 43.2% report the death of a relative due to violence as their reason of leaving. That number jumps to 56.2% for people from El Salvador. Concerning black mail or extortion, 54.8% of El Salvadorians report that as part of their reason for leaving.

Central American immigrants await transportation to a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the Texas.
Photo by: John Moore

People leave their native country just looking for a better life. A life not surrounded by death and destruction and they especially want that for their children. For many people, a better life is thousands of miles away.
Solution Suggestions

These people need to be in their new country, their lives depend on it. Based on human rights, these people should be given the ability of freedom for their life.  Clearly that is not the case and a large problem with the detention centers and the current process for asylum seekers when they reach the new country is that they are policed and treated like criminals. This creates distrust between the migrants and the officials working with their case. The policing and detention centers create distrust due to the migrants being exposed to how terrible the country is willing to treat them and authority to disregard them.  Instead of using policing methods, a social work style approach that could give the asylum seekers the ability to grow and work on their case while in the new country would be beneficial.                  Many options are available, which can be less costly and more humane than an overcrowded detention center with lack of proper maintenance. Detention centers should only be used for people of a high security risk, to establish that basis these people first should go through a screening process to determine why they have traveled to the new country and if they pose risks to the country, due to the possibility of dangerous person entering the country. These people should then be given accommodation that is not a jail cell. The process should be treated more so like a rehabilitation program into a new country rather than a prison sentence.

Accommodation programs should be put in place with multiple ways to create a home for people coming to a new country for refuge.  A community program could be established where community members agree to house the asylum seekers with a given government stipend. With this, the foreign people are able to integrate themselves within the community and rebuild their lives there, to give them an easy merge into a more permanent life there.  This would also give the residents the ability to learn the nation´s language. Another opportunity for a rehabilitating accommodation is apartment style housing and NGO run shelters. A shelter has proven successful in Spain for the integration of asylum seekers and refugees. The shelters hold up to 850 people around Spain and give people the freedom to come and go within the facility, have the ability to house families together, and provide meals in the dining hall. The residents are given a 50€ a month allowance to use around the city and are given money twice per year for clothing. Residents of these facilities are required to attend classes covering language, culture, and employment preparation. Residents in this program are also given a social worker to help with their asylum application and to inform them of changes. These residents also have availability to legal and psychological counsel. After six months, if their asylum status has not been concluded, they are given the ability to find work and helped to find other housing. Vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant women or women who have just given birth, are allowed to apply for an extended stay. This program can integrate refugees and asylum seekers into the country as beneficial additions to the population and become an improvement on society.

Another example of an accommodation program for asylum seekers and refugees takes place in Chile.  This program gives asylum seekers in Chile a renewable temporary stay permit, valid for eight months. With this permit, these people are eligible to work, giving them an opportunity to build their life in the new country and become a beneficial member to society.  They also have a welfare system for the first year the asylum seekers are in the country, to ensure that their families and they are able to meet their basic needs.  Essentially, the asylum seeker receives full support for three months, then it goes down to 75% between months three and six of their stay, after six months, they receive 50% of support until twelve months, when they are finished receiving support. This program has it benefits such as giving the person the ability to create a stable economic base for themselves and their family; the program also does not continue payments which require the person to join the workforce.

When a for-profit prison is housing the asylum seekers, someone is making money off of these people´s misfortune and the more people brought to the overcrowded detention centers, the more money the higher ups make. This causes corruption, if shelters could give people freedom and are run by non-profit organizations, the corruption could cease. These people deserve better than a prison holding center. They did not come to a new country to take away from the citizens; they came because they are scared, so scared, that they would travel thousands of difficult miles for the slight possibility of a healthy and safer life.






[1] Robyn Sampson, Grant Mitchell, Lucy Bowring, “These Are the Alternatives.” International Detention Coalition, 2015

[2] “Italy: Children Stuck in Unsafe Migrant Hotspot.” Human Rights Watch, 30 June 2016,

[3]  Julie M. Linton, Marsha Griffin, Alan J. Shapiro, COUNCIL ON COMMUNITY PEDIATRICS

Pediatrics Mar 2017,














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