Detention of vulnerable applicants


Country Report: Detention of vulnerable applicants Last updated: 30/11/20


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The Asylum Act defines an “applicant in need of special procedural guarantees” in terms of reduced ability to benefit from the rights and comply with the obligations stemming from the Asylum Act due to his or her individual circumstances.[1] Even though it does not include an exhaustive list of asylum seekers presumed to be in need of special procedural guarantees, it refers to age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, serious illness, mental disorders, torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence as possible factors underlying individual circumstances that could lead to the need of special procedural guarantees.[2]

Within these applicants, the Asylum Act identifies a sub-category of individuals whose special procedural needs result from torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence that may be exempted from border procedures and hence detention.[3] Furthermore, the placement of unaccompanied and separated children in detention facilities at the border must comply with applicable international recommendations such as those by UNHCR, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).[4]

In practice, asylum seekers are systematically detained at the border for periods up to 60 days. While up to 2016 certain categories of particularly vulnerable applicants such as unaccompanied children, families with children, pregnant women and severely ill persons were generally released without conditions, SEF changed its practice in this regard.

In 2017, the detention of an asylum-seeking family with children at the Lisbon Airport detention facility drew criticism from the Ombudsman, particularly regarding the inadequate detention conditions offered to a child with special health needs (see Conditions in Detention Facilities).[5]

In July 2018, following media reports on detention of young children at Lisbon Airport,[6] and remarks by the Ombudsman and UNICEF,[7] the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order determining:[8]

  • An internal review of the functioning of the CIT at Lisbon Airport;
  • The urgent presentation by SEF of a report on the recommendations issued by the Ombudsman in 2017 regarding the above-mentioned centre;
  • That children under 16 years old (whether accompanied or not) cannot be detained in the CIT for more than 7 days;
  • That the construction of the Temporary Reception Centre of Almoçageme (CATA), located in the municipality of Sintra, is given maximum priority. So far there is no definite public information on whether it will be an open or closed centre.

At the time of writing no information on the results of the internal reviews were publicly available.

The detention of children in Portugal was recently criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, emphasising that detention of children, whether accompanied or not, must be avoided and alternatives ensured, and that their transfer to adequate solutions should be a priority.[9] Focusing specifically on the situation of children in Portugal, both accompanied and unaccompanied/separated, the UN Committee Against Torture has also recently emphasised that they should not be detained solely because of their immigration status.[10] SEF did not share data on the number of persons with special reception needs detained throughout 2019.


[1] Article 17-A(1) Asylum Act.


[3] Article 17-A(4) Asylum Act.

[4] Article 26(2) Asylum Act.

[5] Ombudsman, Tratamento dos cidadãos estrangeiros em situação irregular ou requerentes de asilo nos centros de instalação temporária ou espaços equiparados, September 2017, available at:, 28.

[6] See e.g. Público, ‘SEF detém crianças requerentes de asilo contra recomendações da ONU’, 22 July 2018, available in Portuguese at:

[7] See e.g. Público, ‘Provedora, “Centros de instalação são o no man’s land contemporâneo”’, 22 July 2018, available in Portuguese at:; Expresso, ‘UNICEF Portugal exige fim de detenção de crianças no aeroporto’, 24 July 2018, available in Portuguese at:

[8] AIDA, ‘Portugal: Persisting detention of children at the airport’, 4 September 2018, available at:

[9] Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth periodic reports of Portugal, CRC/C/PRT/CO/5-6, 9 December 2019, available at: par.42(a) and (d).

[10] Committee Against Torture, Concluding Observations on the seventh periodic report of Portugal, CAR/C/PRT/CO/7, 18 December 2019, available at, para.40(b).


Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation