The United States and Canada are Home to More Than a Third of all Immigrant Detention Facilities Globally in Recent Years
This post features the work of the Global Detention Project, an invaluable source of in-depth information on detention practices worldwide.
According to the latest data from the Global Detention Project (GDP), over the past 20 years or so1 the United States and Canada have had far more immigrant detention centers than other countries in the world. Out of about 2,550 total facilities identified by the GDP, the United States had 730 total facilities (29% of the total), and Canada had 214 facilities (8.5% of the total).
GDP’s data includes facilities that were once used and are now closed, facilities that are open now, and facilities that are scheduled to open. The data also makes a distinction between types of facilities: criminal, administrative, ad hoc, and unknown.
For the map below, I did not make any distinctions between whether the facilities were currently active or what type they were, I simply mapped the total facilities by country (some minor issues around the edges matching countries to Datawrapper’s country list). This means that the map is more a representation of each country’s “detention facility activity” over the past two decades rather than the total number of facilities active today.
No country came close to the number of detention centers in the United States and, after the United States, no country came close to Canada. But if we use an arbitrary cut-off point of having at least 50 detention centers, a few other countries stand out as the next top ten countries for detention facility activity.
Egypt = 96
Russian Federation = 90
South Africa = 75
Mexico = 70
Germany = 70
Greece = 67
Libya = 65
Indonesia = 58
Turkey = 55
Switzerland = 53
The number of facilities alone doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, facilities listed as “criminal” appear to predominate in the United States and Canada while more administrative facilities are identified in the rest of the world. This data also doesn’t list the size of each facility, so we also don’t know what the total capacity is for those facilities in North America compared to other contexts.
GDP’s other reports do get into more detailed and current information. For example, GDP’s report on Australia (a country with notoriously harsh immigration enforcement policies) provides much more detail about the policies and practices of detention in that country. See “Immigration Detention in Australia: Turning Arbitrary Detention into a Global Brand” or the whole list of GDP’s country-level reports here.
I have been wanting to do a short post on the Global Detention Project to highlight what a great resource they are, not just their detention facility database which they generously make available to the public, but also their detailed country profiles, reports, and efforts to make immigrant detention more transparent to the public.
It’s not easy work. You might think that it would be straightforward to identify what a single detention center is. If you’ve ever visited a stand-alone private detention center in the United States, it might seem obvious.
But in the US, many local jails are used as detention facilities, complicating the question of how you count capacity. Do you count the total capacity of the entire jail? Or take a situation where a single facility houses men in one wing and women and children in another adjacent wing. Is that one facility or two facilities? In Europe, which has “reception center”-style facilities, do you count a facility where people can freely leave during the day but are required to return by a curfew as a “detention facility”?
You can see how the methodological questions multiply quickly. All of which is why I appreciate the work of GDP. I know they grapple with these questions (and many more), and as a result, they’ve built an invaluable resource for anyone trying to understand the global immigration and refugee system.
You can explore these data for yourself on GDP’s detention map here.
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It’s not clear how far back their data goes, but it appears to be about 20 years. The detention facility pages would benefit from an explanation of methodology in something like an “about the data” page. I could not find such an explanation, but I also did not spend a lot of time, so if someone from GDP can point me to it, I’ll update the post with a link and fix any errors on my part.