GENEVA (8 July 2019) - UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Monday she is appalled by the conditions in which migrants and refugees - children and adults - are being held in detention in the United States of America after crossing the southern border. She stressed that children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families.
The High Commissioner stated that several UN human rights bodies have found that the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.*”
“As a paediatrician, 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,” High Commissioner Bachelet said.
“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.” The High Commissioner noted that immigration detention is never in the best interests of a child.
Noting the disturbing report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General on the conditions in migrant centres along the southern border, Bachelet urged the authorities 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. If detention does take place, the High Commissioner emphasized, it should be for the shortest period of time, with due process safeguards and in conditions that fully meet all relevant international human rights standards.
“States do have the sovereign prerogative to decide on the conditions of entry and stay of foreign nationals. But clearly, border management measures must comply with the State’s human rights obligations and should not be based on narrow policies aimed only at detecting, detaining and expeditiously deporting irregular migrants,” she added.
“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. 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.”
The UN Human Rights Office’s presences 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, family separation, denial of access to services, refoulement, and arbitrary expulsions.
The High Commissioner recognised the complexity of the situation and the challenges faced by States of origin, transit and destination. She called on them to work together to address the root causes compelling migrants to leave their homes by implementing crosscutting policies that take into account the complex drivers of migration. These include insecurity, sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination, poverty, the adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.
Bachelet also paid tribute to individuals and civil society organisations that have been providing migrants with the most basic of rights, such as the rights to water, food, health, adequate shelter and other such assistance.
“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.
* See relevant standards adopted by various UN human rights bodies, including the CMW, CRC, the Special Rapporteur on migrants and torture: