Vulnerable women and children trapped as Tanzania moves to secure its borders

Detaining vulnerable children only adds insult to injury. Worse still, it may cause further physical, psychological and emotional harm to those who have already suffered so much

Dar es Salaam. Hundreds of people were detained in the course of attempting to migrate to, or transit through Tanzania recently.
While some quarters in the country applaud the arrests as a sign of progress towards securing domestic borders, they also have grave consequences for vulnerable individuals that the government of Tanzania has an obligation to protect.
Often these arrests lead to detention of vulnerable women, children, and victims of torture.
For example, according to news reports from late 2011, at least 45 children were arrested and forcibly detained in Mtwara prison in the southeast of the country.
The Tanzanian government should be screening and assisting in the protection of these children - not subjecting them to further trauma of imprisonment.
Worldwide, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 80 per cent of all refugees and asylum seekers are women and children.
Likewise, a recent report published by the International Detention Coalition (IDC), estimates that nearly 200 million migrants who crossed international borders in 2010, one in four were vulnerable children.
These children are already at a heightened risk of being separated from their families, abused, exploited, and trafficked for sex or labour.
Numerous studies have also shown the detrimental effects of even temporary administrative detention on children, including long-lasting physical, psychological and emotional harms.
Detaining these vulnerable children only adds insult to injury. Worse still, it may cause further physical, psychological and emotional harm to children who have already suffered so much.
When children are forced to flee their families from violence, warfare and famine, they are not in control of the decisions of where, how, or when they flee.
Legally, they are not guilty of any crime. When they arrive at Tanzania’s borders under such circumstances, it is important that government and immigration officials remember that migrant children are, first and foremost, still children.
These children need, and are entitled to our protection.
So what might this protection look like? As the IDC advocates in its recent report, ‘Captured Childhood’, the goal of immigration enforcement can be better achieved - and with fewer harms to vulnerable individuals - by seeking not to detain children.
By making the best interests of the child the primary consideration in any immigration scheme affecting children, and by adopting an understanding that the liberty of the child is a fundamental human right, governments can pursue alternatives to immigration detention in lieu of costly and rights-infringing detention.
For example, effective migrant screening mechanisms can be established and reinforced to ensure that those entitled to refugee protection are efficiently and humanely separated from among mixed migration flows.
Remaining women, children, victims of trauma and unaccompanied minors,  can be assisted by local NGO networks rather than imprisoned.
And in the limited circumstances when detention is absolutely necessary, different cells can be used to separate criminal offenders from non criminal migrants.
The Tanzanian government is working with groups such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to protect vulnerable children trapped in migrant detention, such as building new migration-specific detention facilities.
However, they should also proactively seek alternatives to migrant detention; especially for children, survivors of torture, trafficked persons, and the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
Doing so will not only better protect vulnerable children and families forced to migrate to Tanzania, but provide a more humane response worthy of the good people of Tanzania as well.        
Imagine fleeing violence in your country after witnessing the death of family, friends and loved ones. 
Arriving at the border of a neighboring country, you are tired, hungry, don’t speak the language, don’t know anyone living there, and have nothing but the clothes on your back.  
You are confronted by armed police and immigration officials.  
Because you don’t have a proper visa or travel document, you are interrogated, arrested and thrown in jail.  You are placed in a dark, crowded jail cell among scores of  individuals accused or guilty of committing a crime.  

Now imagine that you are only eight years old. All-too-often, this is the reality facing child survivors of conflict and forced displacement. 
Here in Tanzania, women and children report an alarming rate of detention.  
In a 2011 survey of 122 refugees and asylum seekers living in Dar es Salaam, nearly 40 per cent of respondents reported having been arrested and detained at least once.  
Some reported being arrested more than six times.  
When families are arrested, vulnerable refugee and asylum seeking children   guilty of no crime   are often placed in criminal detention along with their parents.  
This has been documented in Dar es Salaam with refugee and asylum seeking children as young as one and two years old.  
The author works for Refugee Solutions Tanzania, which is a branch of Asylum Access, a US-based international non-profit organization dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
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