Annual Report: Important Victories Amidst Inexorable Expansion

Letter from the Executive Director and President

In 2023, the GDP marked an important milestone: 18 years of operations—first as a student-led research project, launched in 2006 at Geneva’s Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies; and since 2014, as an independent non-profit association. A notable achievement, no doubt, but also a sobering one.

During these nearly two decades, the GDP has documented the growth of detention systems around the globe, creating in the process the world’s unique global database and documentation centre devoted to this single, narrowly circumscribed arena of human suffering. Our motivation for doing this has, since day one, remained the same: reducing harms to one of the world’s more vulnerable populations—the millions of people crossing borders every year to escape hardship and trauma, and to find a better life.

This raison d’etre, however, has at times seemed futile: even as we have made enormous advances in expanding the scope and depth of our data and putting these resources to use in promoting reforms, immigration detention has seemingly flourished nearly everywhere. We have documented its deepening institutional entrenchment in destination countries, as well as its spread—at the urging of the world’s wealthiest countries—to places where the rule of law and institutional safeguards are non-existent.

It is with these sobering considerations in mind that we rejoice in every victory—no matter how seemingly small—every new procedural limitation, legal ruling, policy proposal, or maturing human rights norm that may help constrain use of this measure and ultimately reduce the harms it causes.

Seen in this light, 2023 offered a handful of more important developments to celebrate than our 18-year milestone, many of which the GDP played some small role in helping encourage as you will read about in this Annual Report. Important among these has been a notable trend in limiting the length of detention in many jurisdictions, including ending indefinite detention.

In November, Australia’s High Court issued a landmark ruling that indefinite immigration detention is unlawful. For decades, Australian civil society and human rights actors across the globe have denounced Australia’s exceptionally punitive practices. The GDP’s work has helped provide comparative context for these policies, including in particular our widely-quoted 2022 profile on the country, which began: “Australia’s migration-related detention system is uniquely severe, arbitrary, and punitive. And that is precisely the message that Australia’s political establishment—with significant public support—appears committed to communicating to the rest of the world.”

In March, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s policy of indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers is unconstitutional. The ruling came after a multiyear civil society campaign during which numerous Korean NGOs and legal groups tirelessly campaigned for reforms both nationally and at the international level. The GDP participated in brainstorming sessions with Korean NGOs aimed at shaping effective advocacy messages for the campaign. In December, we had a chance to toast this victory—and to take stock of the many challenges ahead for its effective implementation—with many of our Korean partners at our office in Geneva. They and several other partners from across East Asia, who were all in town for the 2023 Global Refugee Forum, met with GDP staff to discuss new initiatives for raising awareness of detention concerns in the region, including developing a new East Asia Regional Immigration Detention Observatory.

The GDP also played a key role building awareness of harmful detention practices, which have bolstered numerous reform proposals. In May, for example, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice’s immigration detention supervisory body—inspired by the GDP’s 2018 report, “Harm Reduction in Immigration Detention: A Comparative Study of Detention Centres in France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland”—made an official visit to the Frambois detention centre in Geneva with a view to proposing reforms at the Trandum detention centre near Oslo. The GDP helped organise the visit with the assistance of Geneva’s immigration authorities. After the visit, the supervisory board recommended a host of reforms, including inter alia reducing penal aspects at Trandum, stopping use of isolation cells, and providing detainees access to remunerative work, food preparation, and the internet.

As we look ahead to 2024, we are eager to deepen our collaborations, including with the more than a dozen NGOs and individual experts working with us on our Global Observatory project (see page 13). As immigration detention continues its seemingly intractable spread, we must remain poised, energised, engaged, and prepared to challenge its logic and prevent its harms. And we hope to be able to count on you to support these efforts.

Michael Flynn (Executive Director) and Sahar Okhovat (President)

Read the full report