Rates of foreign nationals in prison vary greatly from region to region and country to country. In the Middle East, more than one in three people in prison are foreigners. In Thailand, around 4.4 per cent of the prison population is composed of foreign nationals (approximately 12,000 people), whereas only 0.5 per cent of Indonesia’s detainees are foreign (around 220 people). The proportion of foreign nationals in Argentina’s prisons is around 6.5 per cent, totalling over 6,000 people. In Europe, as of January 2020, foreign nationals made up on average 24 per cent of national prison populations, and more than a quarter in at least 15 countries.
The rates of women in prison who are foreign nationals continue to be high particularly in parts of Asia and Latin America, owing to drug policies that entail punitive sentences for drug-related offences or immigration policies. In Thailand’s biggest women’s prison, foreign national women account for 8 per cent of the prison population (400 women) and almost all of them are imprisoned for drug-related offences. In Chile, Colombia and Peru, foreign nationals constitute large proportions of women held in pre-trial detention (73, 50 and 42 per cent, respectively), with drug-related charges being the most common reason.
In January 2020, foreign nationals made up 15% of the prison population in Europe, varying from 2% to 70% in most countries.
The pandemic has posed specific issues for detained foreign nationals. Transfers of sentences effectively came to a halt with travel restrictions and border closures. Across Europe, for instance, there was an almost total suspension under Prisoner Transfer Agreements and the EU instrument on transfers, although exceptional transfers of foreign nationals to their home countries had occurred from neighbouring countries when journeys could be facilitated across borders by road.
The situation for detained foreign nationals has been compounded by lack of certainty around decisions relating to post-release, such as whether someone will be deported or transferred back to their country of origin at the completion for their prison sentence. Some challenges include obtaining resources required for COVID-19 testing prior to international travel, flight availability for people to return to their home countries and avoiding stays in deportation centres for people without community links.
Prisoner release schemes over the past year have mostly excluded foreign nationals, although Iranian officials reported they temporarily released 1,000 foreigners as part of their efforts to reduce prison numbers.
Data suggests that the mental health of foreign nationals has been particularly impacted over the past year.
Before the pandemic, a common challenge for detained foreign nationals was maintaining contact with the outside world. During the pandemic, the turn to digital solutions for all detainees has benefitted this group in some countries, including in Sweden, France, Germany and Netherlands, which all have sizable numbers of foreign nationals in their prisons. Video calls and longer, free calls have been introduced for many. In terms of accessing information about coronavirus, in Austria, where foreign nationals compose 51 per cent of the prison population, information on hygiene measures for preventing COVID-19 were produced in various languages.
Data suggests that the mental health of foreign nationals has been particularly impacted over the past year. For example, an increase in the numbers of self-harm and suicides among people in Italian prisons since the beginning of 2020 shows foreign nationals are disproportionately represented: 43.6 per cent of all recorded suicides in Italian prisons in 2020 were of foreign nationals — far more than the proportion over the last five years, which varied between 29.2 and 39 per cent.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.