Bette Browne: Children paying price of inhuman treatment

Bette Browne: Children paying price of inhuman treatment
small child cries in distress as his mother comforts him in the Matamoros camp, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, near to the border with the US earlier this month. Around 2,000 refugees are currently living in tents next to the International Bridge that connects Matamoros with the US city of Brownsville. Picture: Lexie Harrison-Cripps /AFP via Getty Images

Doctors are offering to vaccinate at risk children after at least three deaths among thousands being held in the US, many in camps separated from their parents, says Bette Browne

A group of US doctors has expressed alarm at the deaths this year of at least three of the almost 70,000 migrant children held in detention by their government. (Donald Trump’s administration is cracking down on those trying to illegally enter the country.)

The death rate from flu among children in the centres was nine times that of the general population last year, the doctors said, and they offered to go to the centres to vaccinate other children at risk.

The doctors, who are affiliated with Doctors For Camp Closure, made the vaccination offer in a letter to the chiefs of US Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. They called unsanitary detention conditions “cause for significant alarm.”

“We implore you to allow our volunteer physicians to hold our requested influenza vaccine clinic... to ensure that the majority of migrant families who are being held in [border detention] centres may receive the recommended vaccinations to prevent a possible flu epidemic,” read the letter signed by the seven doctors.

“In our professional, medical opinion,” the doctors wrote, “this alarming mortality rate constitutes an emergency which threatens the safety of human lives, particularly of children.”

Migrants diagnosed with the flu are either treated where they are detained or taken to a local hospital, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says, and children who test positive for the flu are quarantined “as best as possible” to protect others in custody.

The three migrants — aged 2, 6, and 16 — died in Border Patrol custody during the year to September.

The exact number of deaths among children at these centres is not known, but authoritative reports say it could be six.

The first deaths (of two Guatemalan children, before Christmas last year) caused an outcry. One of them, Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8-year-old boy, died on Christmas Eve.

The US Customs and Border Protection subsequently ordered medical checks on every child in its custody. The Guatemalan boy had been moved through at least four holding facilities and suffered from a fever and vomiting.

Separately, at least 12 people died in the custody of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at adult detention centres in 2018.

The latest flu-related deaths came as the number of migrant children and families held in federal custody reached a record high.

A total of 69,955 migrant children were held in custody by the US government this year, many in detention centres and separated from their parents, according to official figures.

“That’s far more than all the other countries where we have reliable figures,” human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak said in a UN study, earlier this month, that has sparked alarm among children’s rights advocates.

“I would call it inhuman treatment for both the parents and the children,” Nowak said.

The figure is up 42% from 2018, when US president, Donald Trump, launched what he called a “zero tolerance” policy to crack down on immigration.

Trump’s then attorney general Jeff Sessions, announced the policy this way on May 7, 2018:

“If you cross the border unlawfully… then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you… If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you.”

Before the policy was put in place, adults were not referred for prosecution, but, instead, were allowed to submit an asylum application.

Under the new policy, federal authorities separated children from parents or guardians with whom they had entered the US.

The adults were prosecuted and held in federal jails, and the children were placed in detention centres, under the supervision of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

In June 2018, a judge halted the policy and Trump subsequently signed an executive order ending the practice.

Since reversing itself on family separation, however, the administration has tried other ways to stop asylum seekers (many of them Central American families), civil rights groups say.

Thousands of Central Americans and Cubans have been returned to Mexico this year to wait for immigration court hearings there, instead of being released in the United States with notices to appear in court.

The administration has also separated 1,090 children since the judge ordered a halt to the practice in June 2018, except in limited circumstances, like threats to child safety or doubts about whether the adult is the parent.

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused the authorities of abusing their discretion by separating families over dubious allegations and minor transgressions, like traffic offences.

Democratic lawmakers and civil rights activists who visited migrant detention centres earlier this year said conditions for the children were marked by overcrowding and there was inadequate food, water, and other basic needs.

Some of the children told lawyers they had not had a change of clothing or a bath for weeks, there were no adult caretakers, and girls no older than 10 were taking care of the younger children.

Some of these migrant children who were in government custody have since been deported and some have been reunited with family in the US. But about 4,000 are still in government custody, some in large detention shelters, and more are arriving every week.

Human rights advocates say part of the reason so many children are being detained is because the United States never ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it was a signatory in 1995.

The UN General Assembly adopted the convention in 1989 and, within a few years, it had become one of the most widely adopted human rights agreements in the world. Ireland signed it in 1990 and ratified it in 1992.

Because the US signed the treaty, but never ratified it, the convention’s restrictions “do not formally apply to the United States of America,” Nowak said. But he added that the US could still be held liable for its treatment of children, because it is party to other treaties on civil rights and torture.

“In my opinion, the way they were separating infants from the families, only in order to deter irregular migration from Central America to the United States of America, constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment, and that is absolutely prohibited [by those other international treaties],” Nowak said.

Rights advocates say the vast majority of children are fleeing Central American countries, often to escape from persecution, abuse, or violence.

Earlier this month, a federal judge found that the government’s separation policy had “caused severe mental trauma to parents and their children” and that US government officials were “aware of the risks associated with family separation when they implemented it.”

Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States cover their faces as they walk upon their arrival at the Air Force Base in Guatemala City on November 21, 2019. (Photo by ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP via Getty Images)
Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States cover their faces as they walk upon their arrival at the Air Force Base in Guatemala City on November 21, 2019. (Photo by ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP via Getty Images)

The judge ordered the government to immediately provide mental health screenings and treatment to the thousands of families separated under the policy.

Detention of child migrants is not unique to the Trump administration. It happened, too, under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, but separating children from their families was the exception during those years and usually only happened when the child’s safety was in question or the adult had a criminal conviction.

The UN report this month includes a number of recommendations for governments to improve how they handle children in their custody, ranging from creating special legal and justice programmes for children to finding ways to avoid placing them in institutions. Above all, Nowak said, detention should be seen only as a last resort.

“Children should live, or grow up, in families — their own families, foster families, family-type settings,” Nowak said, “and not in institutions where they’re, in fact, deprived of liberty, where there’s strict discipline, there’s a lot of violence.”

The UN report has also put the spotlight on immigration at a time when the country is heading into the 2020 presidential election.

In the November 20 Democratic debate among candidates vying for their party’s nomination to face Trump, Senator Elizabeth Warren was applauded when she lashed out at the president over the crisis.

“Trump is the one who has created this crisis, and he has done it, in no small part, by helping destabilise the governments even further in Central America. He has withdrawn aid. That means that families have to flee for their lives, have to flee for any economic opportunity.

“We need to treat the people who come here with dignity and with respect.

“A great nation does not separate children from their families. We need to live our values at the border every single day,” Warren said.

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