UN expert corrects claim on children in US migration detention

UN expert Manfred Nowak corrects claim, but says US still holds more children than other countries.

Immigration - US
Child migrants are seen outside the US Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas in May [File: Loren Elliott/Reuters]
Correction19 Nov 2019
Following the publication of this article, the outside expert quoted corrected a figure he cited claiming that more than 100,000 children were currently being held in migrant detention in the US. On Tuesday, he told news agencies the figure was from 2015, the latest his team could find. This article has been updated under a new headline to reflect his corrected statement.

An outside expert working with the UN human rights office has corrected a figure he cited claiming that over 100,000 children are being held in migrant detention in the United States.

On Monday, Manfred Nowak, who leads a UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty that was published this week, told reporters: “We have more than – still more than – 100,000 children in migration-related detention in the United States of America.” Major news organisations reported that figure.

But on Tuesday, he told The Associated Press that figure was drawn from a UN refugee agency report citing data from 2015, the latest figure his team could find. That was before US President Donald Trump, whose policies on migration have drawn criticism, was elected. Barack Obama was US president at the time. 

Nowak also said the figure of more than 100,000 referred to the cumulative number of migrant children held in detention at any point during that year, whether “for two days or eight months or the whole year”, not all simultaneously.

He reiterated, however, that the US is holding far more children than are other countries for which he has reliable figures.

There was no immediate reaction from US authorities. Novak said US officials had not replied to his questionnaire sent to all countries.

New US government data released this month found 69,550 migrant children have been held in US government custody over the past year.

‘Inhuman treatement’

On Monday, Nowak took specific aim at the Trump administration over its treament of migrant children and their families. 

“Of course, separating children, as was done by the Trump administration, from their parents and even small children at the Mexican-US border is absolutely prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would call it inhuman treatment for both the parents and the children,” Nowak said. 

Novak said the US had ratified major international treaties such as those guaranteeing civil and political rights and banning torture, but was the only country not to have ratified the pact on the rights of children.

“The way they were separating infants from families only in order to deter irregular migration from Central America to the United States to me constitutes inhuman treatment, and that is absolutely prohibited by the two treaties,” said Nowak, a professor of international law at the University of Vienna.

Child immigration - US
Protesters hold signs outside of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children while members of Congress tour the facility [File: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo] 

Since coming to office, Trump has made strict immigration policies a cornerstone of his presidency. Under his “zero-tolerance” policy at the border, his government implemented a practice of separating families. Following public outrage, Trump formally ended the practice in June 2018, but immigration advocates say family separation continues in other ways. 

Last week, an analysis of US government data by The Associated Press and PBS’s Frontline found that children held in government custody in 2019 spent more time in shelters and away from their families than in previous years.

ICE Family Separation protest file photo
US President Donald Trump has escalated a crackdown on immigration since coming to office [File: Stephanie Keith/Reuters] 

In September, a judge blocked new Trump administration rules that would have enabled the government to keep migrant children in detention facilities with their parents indefinitely.

The judge said the rules conflict with a 1997 settlement agreement that requires the government to release immigrant children detained along the border as quickly as possible to relatives in the US and says they can only be held in facilities licensed by a state.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly said that detention is not suitable for children, who may suffer numerous negative physical and emotional symptoms.

The Trump administration has faced harsh criticism of its temporary border patrol stations, where lawyers and internal government watch-dogs reported hundreds of children and families were held in squalid conditions.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies