A mother and her children at a detention centre in GreeceSeeking asylum is not a criminal act and those who seek it should not be detained, the United Nations refugee agency declared today, while also calling on all states to seek out alternatives to detention when dealing with migrants and refugees.

Addressing a media briefing in Geneva, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Alice Edwards, presented the agency’s new guidelines on the detention of asylum-seekers, urging the world’s governments to make better use of alternatives to detention for those irregular migrants seeking refuge within their borders.

“The new guidelines make clear that seeking asylum is not a criminal act, and that indefinite and mandatory forms of detention are prohibited under international law,” Ms. Edwards said.

“We are disappointed that many countries continue to hold asylum-seekers in detention, sometimes for long periods and in poor conditions, including in some cases in prisons together with common criminals,” she added.

According to a UNHCR report released in March, global asylum claims have been on the rise, with 2011 experiencing an estimated 441,300 recorded claims compared to 368,000 the previous year.

In relative terms, the largest increase was in southern Europe, which saw 66,800 asylum claims – a jump of 87 per cent. Most of these claims were from people who arrived by boat in Italy and Malta, but with a sharp increase also seen in Turkey.

Ms. Edwards voiced particular concern that along with the growing number of asylum seekers, the use of detention was becoming a more frequent occurrence. She noted that UNHCR research indicated that irregular migration is not deterred even by stringent detention practices and that more than 90 per cent of asylum-seekers comply with their conditions of release when freed from detention.

“Such solutions are important features of immigration and asylum regimes,” she said. “Alternatives to detention are also more cost-effective than detention.”

In addition, Ms. Edwards urged governments to pay special attention to vulnerable asylum-seekers, such as victims of torture and trauma, older persons or persons with disabilities, and children.

“Detention should be a measure of last resort, prescribed by national laws and implemented only when necessary and proportionate to a legitimate purpose in conformity with international standards,” she said.

The new guidelines supersede the ones last issued by UNHCR in 1999.