Civil Society in the Spotlight: Carolina Gottardo from the International Detention Coalition

Civil Society in the Spotlight: Carolina Gottardo from the International Detention Coalition

In this Civil Society Spotlight interview, we hear from Carolina Gottardo, the Executive Director of  the  International Detention Coalition (IDC). Carolina guides the global network of 275+ organisations, individuals, and community members from around the world to advocate for the human rights of those affected by immigration detention. Through strategic collaboration with civil society, UN agencies, and governments at various levels worldwide, IDC works to build movements and shape legal, policy, and procedural changes aimed at reducing and ultimately ending immigration detention and promoting rights-based alternatives globally. 

Carolina is a migrant lawyer and economist with over 20 years of human rights experience specialising in migration, asylum, and gender. Carolina has previously held leadership roles at the Jesuit Refugee Service Australia and Latin American Women’s Rights Service, among others.  

EPIM has supported IDC’s work with the European Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Network, which brings together NGOs running case management-based alternatives to detention pilot projects in seven European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Poland, and the UK) with regional-level and international organisations.  


1. Can you tell us about IDC’s scope of work and how it has evolved since you started working in the organisation in 2020? 

IDC is a global network with members in more than 75 countries that advocates for the rights of migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum, aiming to reduce and ultimately end immigration detention and implement rights-based, non-custodial alternatives to detention.  

IDC approaches ATD as a systems change strategy working towards ending immigration detention while building migration governance systems that ensure dignity and human rights for people on the move in the community and out of immigration detention. In partnership with civil society, UN agencies, and multiple levels of government, we strategically build movements, and influence law, policy, and practices, putting the voice of people with lived experience at the centre. 

Over the last few years, IDC’s mission has evolved from initially aiming to reduce immigration detention to ending immigration detention. We have also fine-tuned our approach to alternatives to detention as systems change strategy for migration governance systems that do not involve the use of immigration detention. 

Carolina speaking at the Global Refugee Forum in 2023 (image credit: IDC)


2. Over the past years leading the European ATD network, can you talk about some of the major wins for the network? 

The ATD pilots and initiatives coupled with the advocacy around these at national and regional levels, have resulted in several impactful developments.  

These have included: formal government-civil society partnerships established to provide case management based ATD; the development of institutional capacity for ATD in government departments; the establishment of working relationships with government departments and local authorities, the development of evidence-based evaluations on the impact of the ATD pilots, as well as increased awareness and expertise among government institutions, parliamentarians and increased interest and understanding in ATD among local NGOs, academia and the media. 

For example, the Association for Legal Intervention (SIP) in Poland signed an MOU with authorities whereby people with specific vulnerabilities who are at risk of detention would be referred to their pilot instead of being put in detention.  

In Cyprus, The Cyprus Refugee Council established an unofficial partnership with the national migration department allowing people were released into their ATD pilot. This also later led to the appointment of a dedicated ATD officer. 

In Belgium, the Immigration department begun the deployment of Individual Case Management coaches to support undocumented people to resolve their cases in the community with JRS Belgium. 

CLA in Bulgaria is working with the national government on ATD programmes and local authorities in Italy, including Rome and Torino, are working closely with CILD, Progetto Diritti and Mosaico on ATD implementation.  


3. One of the criticisms we hear about ATD, is that there the political atmosphere currently is not conducive to them – is that true? What then has the work achieved? And is there a future for ATD in Europe? 

While the political climate indeed poses challenges for ATD, it is not novel, and the atmosphere has never been straightforward to navigate.  

In addition to recent restrictive policies and criminalization trends nationally, the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is likely to lead to a concerning increase in the detention of migrants, including children and families. 

Some governments across the political spectrum recognise that immigration detention is not an effective solution to migration management and does little to support case resolution or deter those hoping to make the journey to Europe. There is evident enthusiasm from some states on ATD, which is clear from the rise in promising practices in European countries and the increased visibility of detention and ATD in a number of international fora. There is also a global momentum on ending child immigration detention that needs to be advanced, and potential opportunities for ATD implementation at national levels despite the forthcoming Pact. Peer learning approaches and the exchange of promising practices have also attracted the attention of states, with some such as Portugal, willing to function as ATD “champions” and connect national, regional, and global efforts.  


Carolina and partners at the Regional Consultation on Strategic Litigation & Legal Advocacy for Refugee and Migrant Rights in 2023 ( Image credit: IDC )


4. What have IDC and the pilot partners learnt about relationship building over these past years? How does this support advocacy for a long-term end to detention? 

Relationship building has been an essential component of the pilots’ success and the effective advocacy of the network.  

The development of working relationships and informal agreements with relevant national and local authorities have been successes by themselves and have also led to increased awareness, knowledge and understanding of ATD and some authorities have incorporated and implemented the concept at the government level. 

Establishing formal agreements with governments has been particularly important when it comes to scaling up case management-based approaches. The resources required to lead to meaningful and long-term change in migration governance systems are far greater than those that can be provided by civil society alone, and partnerships and multi-stakeholder governance on migration are key to addressing this gap.  

In addition to the importance of collaborating with authorities, and seeing the more significant impact it can have, we have learnt that through forming partnerships with like-minded organisations, the Network can extend its advocacy efforts and facilitate change on a larger scale.  Expanding partnerships beyond migration-oriented civil society organisations and beyond civil society is important, such as collaborating with local authorities. This can lead to dialogue with policymakers and can allow for case management-based approaches to emerge in other contexts. 


5. In terms of migration and integration in Europe today, what change do you see that makes you the most hopeful? 

It is challenging to be hopeful when witnessing the increased criminalization of migration and the new Asylum and Migration Pact. 

That said, recent regularization programmes like the one in Ireland, or the framing of migration and regularisation in Portugal have been a positive development and recent progress on ATD that focuses on solutions, including government-civil society collaboration are interesting.  

The response to the situation in Ukraine has been hopeful, clearly illustrating that coordinated responses, not based on criminalization, could work when there is political will. Additionally, the work of local authorities in different cities across Europe that are championing welcome and integration for people on the move, also gives us hope. Another promising area is joining national, regional, and global efforts and increasing peer learning opportunities to share promising practices. 

Other interesting developments include the increased momentum on lived experience leadership and the enhanced solidarity of global civil society working on migration in a more intersectional manner. 


Carolina speaking at the International Migration Review Forum in 2022 (image credit: IDC)


6. Knowing what you know now, what would you advise practitioners entering the field today? 

After over two decades of working on advocacy issues on human rights, migration, and gender and being a very motivated and idealistic person to begin with, these are my takeaways:  

  • You are there for the long haul. Systemic change does not happen overnight and requires time, tactical approaches, and different actors. Systemic change is not linear either.  
  • Do not lose hope. Sometimes advocacy work could be a thankless effort, particularly in such a politicised issue such as migration. However, migrant rights practitioners and advocates have a key role to play. 
  • Social change is a collective effort requiring multiple actors working at various levels and changing tactics according to different contexts. You cannot achieve change by yourself, but you can put in your grain of sand towards social change and rights-based approaches, and your efforts certainly matter.  
  • The work of civil society is crucial for pursuing change through migration-related advocacy. However, limited funding is one of the main challenges that limits civil society efforts and impact. Additional resources for this work are essential and we need to be creative about fundraising.  
  •  Focus on solutions and not only problems. This is an effective way of engaging with decision makers and presenting palatable ways to move ahead. I have found it helpful to go beyond criticism, although denouncing and criticism also have an essential role to play.  
  • -Effective advocacy efforts require different tactics, and there is room for insider and outsider advocacy, lobbying, campaigning, strategic litigation, and movement building. The challenges we face with the criminalization of migration are significant, and these approaches complement each other. Every organization can build on their strengths and work closely with others. 


7. What have you unlearned since working with IDC? 

To think differently about engagement and to leave stereotypes behind.  

I have worked with civil society for over two decades in different countries and contexts. The work with IDC has been one of the most impactful I have been involved with because it is focused on solutions-based approaches.  

This implies getting out of traditional ways of thinking and stereotypes and working hand in hand with others, including government officials at various levels and other stakeholders.  

Governments are complex entities made of distinct levels and different departments. They do not all think the same, so understanding closely how they operate is critical. Often, as part of civil society, we sometimes oversimplify governments. However, many champions within governments could be allies for the change we want to make. Even if the aspirations are different, common ground could be sought. We need to scale up our efforts and increase our impact. Negative or fixed stereotypes do not help us to achieve this.  

One of the most important aspects of working with IDC has been exploring diverse ways of working and thinking outside-the-box. Collaborating with the right allies both within and outside of governments could help us to advance our cause, of course always ensuring that there is no risk of co-option, and that the promotion of migrants’ rights is always at the very heart of all our efforts.   


Further Reading