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U.S. Administration’s Secret Mass Transfer and Detention of Children is Unconscionable

PHR calls for minors to immediately be released to sponsors or foster homes

New York, NY

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is horrified by reports of the clandestine, nighttime transfers of over 1,600 migrant children to a sprawling desert tent city in Tornillo, Texas. These minors must immediately be released and the U.S. government must facilitate independent medical and mental health evaluations without delay to assess conditions of confinement and to ensure the protection of children.

One of PHR’s medical experts and Asylum Network members, Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS, visited Tornillo in June, and says the thought of children being held there is nothing short of “heartbreaking and infuriating.”

“I was there with a group of doctors and other health providers, but we were not given permission to enter,” Mishori said. “But what we saw was alarming. The facility is literally in the middle of the desert, surrounded by guards and barbed wire. It looks like a prison.”

“I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for children to be held there, against their will, when they have done nothing wrong. The situation is cruel and inhumane, period,” Mishori added.

Homer Venters, MD, director of programs at PHR, said detention in tent cities like Tornillo is likely to result in severe physical and mental health harms for the children.

“Detaining children is egregious from a health and human rights standpoint. Children and adolescents have specific psychosocial and developmental needs which must be taken into account at all times. The conditions alleged at Tornillo — large, unregulated tents in the desert — are completely inappropriate for any length of stay,” said Venters.

“Every child, regardless of immigration status, must be treated humanely, which requires ending detention and immediately releasing these children to appropriate sponsors whenever possible. The current state of children in detention, with some 12,800 detained, is squarely a result of the U.S. administration’s tactic of using children as bait to arrest potential sponsors whose immigration proceedings are pending. Sponsors should not be in a situation where they fear arrest if they step forward, and children should not be held hostage to such a cruel scheme,” Venters added.

Tent cities lack adequate standards and oversight mechanisms. There are no independent health professionals inspecting the conditions and examining the health of the children who are being detained – something that should horrify us all, said Kathryn Hampton, Asylum Network program officer at PHR.

“Placing children in unregulated camps without effective mechanisms for accountability for their treatment is simply unacceptable. Detaining migrant children violates U.S. obligations under international law and is profoundly harmful to their physical and mental health,” Hampton said.

Extensive clinical evidence shows that detention of any kind has negative health effects on children, and PHR research over the past two decades has documented the harm of indefinite detention on non-citizens, generally. Findings from studies of young detainees consistently show significant psychological distress which contributes to high rates of developmental delays, attachment difficulties, emotional disturbances, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and PTSD symptoms. Stressors reported by detained children include limited opportunity for safe recreational activity, inadequate educational resources, strict daily regimens, overly crowded living spaces, constant surveillance, negative interactions with guards, nighttime bed checks which cause sleep deprivation, and limited access to medical and psychological care.

Children in detention are also deprived of the support of adults who can help to share the burden and the distress of their circumstances. Research findings have shown that even after their release from detention, children continue to experience ongoing depressive, anxious, and post-traumatic symptoms and familial stress.

PHR calls on the administration to immediately transfer all the children held at Tornillo to developmentally appropriate facilities, to allow independent experts to evaluate their conditions of confinement at once, to facilitate their safe release to sponsors without delay, and to end the practice of arresting sponsors on the basis of their immigration status.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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