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Reforms made following the inhuman treatment of a four-year-old girl

Mubilanzila Mayeka and Kaniki Mitunga v. Belgium  | 2006

Reforms made following the inhuman treatment of a four-year-old girl

The court is in no doubt that detention in the conditions described caused her considerable distress. Nor could the authorities who ordered her detention have failed to be aware of the serious psychological effects it would have on her.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, 12th October 2006

Background

In 2002, when she was four years old, Congolese national Tabitha Mitunga was travelling with her uncle to Canada, where her mother had obtained asylum. During her journey, Tabitha was detained at Brussels airport because she did not have the right papers to enter Belgium.

Tabitha was detained by the Belgian authorities for almost two months. She had been taken away from her uncle and had no family or friends with her. She was kept in the same place as adults, with nobody assigned to look after her. She was eventually deported to the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, her mother was not informed in advance, so there was nobody waiting for Tabitha when she arrived back in her home country.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court ruled that Tabitha’s detention had had serious psychological effects on her. Furthermore, she had been deported regardless of the situation she would find upon arrival. Her detention and deportation had amounted to inhuman treatment and a violation of the right to private life – both for Tabitha and her mother. The violations had resulted from a lack of any legal provisions about how unaccompanied minors should be treated in Belgium.

The court also found a violation of Tabitha’s right to liberty, due to her inappropriate detention and the lack of an effective way to challenge it. 

Follow-up

Tabitha was eventually able to join her mother in Canada in October 2002, after the intervention of the Belgian and Canadian Prime Ministers.

After the case was lodged at the Strasbourg court, personal tutors were introduced for unaccompanied children in 2004. The tutors’ mission is to safeguard the children’s interests whilst they are under state protection, and they have the power to challenge a deportation order. Furthermore, the law was changed in 2007 so that detention of unaccompanied minors was abolished in almost all cases. Finally, a law of 2012 requires that unaccompanied minors who may be deported will be properly received and cared for in the country they are deported to.


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