The United Nations’ top human rights official said on Monday she was “appalled” at conditions forced on adults and children held in detention after crossing into the United States from its southern border with Mexico.
Michelle Bachelet, who has headed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, since last September, emphasized that children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families.
“As a pediatrician, but also as a mother and a former head of state, I am deeply shocked that children are forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, without access to adequate healthcare or food, and with poor sanitation conditions,” said Bachelet, who became a pediatrician and public health advocate before starting a career in politics that led her to two terms as Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010 and 2014 to 2018.
“Detaining a child even for short periods under good conditions can have a serious impact on their health and development — consider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue,” she said in a statement as the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council met in Geneva.
Bachelet urged U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to find non-custodial alternatives for migrant and refugee children and adults.
“Any deprivation of liberty of adult migrants and refugees should be a measure of last resort,” she said, adding that when detention is considered necessary it should be done for the shortest period of time possible and meet international human rights standards.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) July 8, 2019
U.S. report finds dangerous conditions
Bachelet referenced a report last week from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, an internal watchdog, that warned of poor conditions in U.S. immigration detention facilities. The report advised the government to “take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults.”
Conditions at Border Patrol stations in South Texas were so dangerous, it said, that migrant men detained in one of the facilities had begged for help from government inspectors. The report also said 51 women were crowded in a cell that was supposed to hold up to 40 youth, and 71 men were crowded in a cell meant for 41.
After the release of the OIG report, Trump defended the detention facilities and said he had been shown ones that were well-run and clean. “I think they do a great job with those facilities,” he told reporters at the White House. The Republican president also blamed overcrowding on Democrats in U.S. Congress.
The U.N. criticism echoes that of other international organizations. In June, Human Rights Watch said a 14-year old girl recounted having to take care of a 4-year old girl who had been placed in her cell with no relatives. “I take her to the bathroom, give her my extra food if she is hungry, and tell people to leave her alone if they are bothering her,” she said.
The teenage girl was among the children that the New York-based organization said it spoke with during a visit with lawyers and doctors monitoring what it called “unacceptable” conditions for children at U.S. border facilities.
“U.S. Border Patrol is holding many children, including some who are much too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds,” it said. “Many are sick. Many, including children as young as two or three, have been separated from adult caretakers without any provisions for their care besides the unrelated older children also being held in detention.”
Bachelet said nations have the right to decide on conditions of entry and stay of foreign nationals, but that border management measures also must comply with international human rights obligations “and should not be based on narrow policies aimed only at detecting, detaining and expeditiously deporting irregular migrants.”
“In most of these cases, the migrants and refugees have embarked on perilous journeys with their children in search of protection and dignity and away from violence and hunger,” she said. “When they finally believe they have arrived in safety, they may find themselves separated from their loved ones and locked in undignified conditions. This should never happen anywhere.”
U.N. rights officials working on the ground in Mexico and Central America have documented numerous human rights violations and abuses against migrants and refugees in transit including the excessive use of force, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and family separation, according to OHCHR.
But some people and organizations have been humanely providing migrants with necessities such as water, food, health, adequate shelter and other help.
“The provision of lifesaving assistance is a human rights imperative that must be respected at all times and for all people in need — it is inconceivable that those who seek to provide such support would risk facing criminal charges,” she said.