September 21, 2019

Child Detention Around the World

“The past two weeks has seen a surge in reporting on how U.S. Customs and Border Protection treats immigrants as they enter the country. On Monday, July 1st, lawmakers toured border-patrol facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas, and spoke with women who were detained there. The women recounted that their children had been taken from them; they were being held in cramped cells with little access to fresh water and had been told to drink from the toilet. That day, ProPublica reported on a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents, with nearly ten thousand members, who posted vulgar insults of immigrants and of the lawmakers who visited them in Texas. On Sunday, the New York Times and the El Paso Times published an investigation into the Border Patrol facility in Clint, where hundreds of children, many of them separated from family members, have been held in unsanitary, cruel, and overcrowded conditions. In response, the Trump Administration claimed that the border-patrol facilities were adequate, and President Trump called the Times piece a “hoax.”

In order to place this ongoing crisis into a broader international and historical context, I recently spoke by phone with Michael Garcia Bochenek, who is the senior counsel to the Children’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch. Bochenek, who previously served as the director of law and policy for Amnesty International’s London secretariat, has extensive experience visiting child detainees in the United States and around the world. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what he learned from seeing detained children abroad, the attitudes of guards at border facilities, and why America makes it so difficult for human-rights advocates to visit detained children.

As this largely self-imposed humanitarian crisis has been developing on the border, what have you made of the images and reports you have been seeing, especially given your international experience?

“Self-imposed” is really the right word, not only in terms of a manufactured emergency. This is something that, numerically speaking, isn’t very unusual, something that in terms of capacity isn’t that much of a challenge, in a country with considerable resources. Anytime we are looking at deficiencies in terms of conditions of detention, lack of access to needed programming, lack of attention to mental-health and other health services—the cause of that is not that there is not money, or there is no capacity, or there is no expertise, as has been the case in some places that I have been. It’s a policy choice. It’s a choice to inflict these kinds of conditions on people, and in this case on children.”

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