Alongside the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Manfred Nowak, leader of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty released a report detailing the number of migrant kids detained by states across the globe. Almost immediately after the study’s report made news headlines, Nowak was forced to issue a correction, downscaling the number of children detained by the US, but keeping it at the top of the list. 

Numbers Game 

Nowak’s initial count placed the number of children at over 100,000. He cited a UN refugee agency report which used data from 2015 during the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That number contrasted heavily alongside a US Health and Human Services figure of 69,550 for 2019. Furthermore, Nowak admitted the number did not reference the number of children held simultaneously, but rather cumulatively. Therefore it would be inaccurate to say those children are currently detained at the same time. 

“I used the UNHCR data because it was the last UNHCR figure that was published, and that goes back to the year 2015,” Nowak said. “And I haven’t checked it that clearly in the press conference. So that was, of course, misleading.”

Still, when stacked against data from other countries, the US figure is alarmingly high. In 2013, Australia kept 2,000 children. Canada detained 155 in 2018 and the United Kingdom revealed that only 42 were sent to shelters in 2017. 

With 60 of every 100,000 children detained, the US leads developing states such as Bolivia, Botswana, and Sri Lanka. Mexico also falls behind the US with only a fraction of children detained – 18,000 in immigrant detention facilities and 7,000 in prison. 

Notably, these children are separated from 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 prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would call it inhumane treatment for both the parents and the children,” Nowak remarked. 

Article 9 of the convention reads, “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, under applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.”

Subpar Conditions

In the US and Mexico, a majority of the separation cases are centred around alleged illegal immigration. Often the child’s family is with them as they attempt to enter the US or Mexico. HHS commented that although the total for 2019 “has jumped dramatically” since 2012, the average detention period has fallen to 57 days from 93 in November 2018. 

“The way they were separating infants from families only to deter irregular migration from Central America to the United States to me constitutes inhuman treatment, and that is prohibited by the two treaties,” said Nowak.

In the Middle East, 29,000 youth are detained in Syria and Iraq due to connections with the ISIS terror group. French citizens comprise the largest segment of foreigners among them, Nowak said. 

Separating children from their families and detaining them is only the beginning of the problem highlighted by the convention’s report. Treatment of minors has been a contentious debate. The US Congress appropriated $4.6 billion for the Border Patrol to relocate children from border facilities into more age-appropriate shelters, but evidence suggests that has done little to improve conditions. 

Food is a common issue, according to a New York Times report. In two instances, children were told to eat food from off the floor. Additionally, food is often spoiled. Detention facilities are commonly overcrowded, wash facilities are subpar, and children are found sleeping on floors due to lack of beds and blankets. Furthermore, US law requires children to receive proper medical and mental healthcare, but the HHS Office of the Inspector General determined there is a lack of clinicians. 

Mental Effect

The long-term effects of child separation and mistreatment is damning. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, explained to Congress the mental aspect of separation.

“Stable and responsive relationships promote healthy brain architecture,” Shonkoff said. “If these relationships are disrupted, young children are hit by the double whammy of a brain that is deprived of the positive stimulation it needs, and assaulted by a stress response that disrupts its developing circuitry.”

Although the practice of detaining youth is not new from the Trump administration, poor treatment and living conditions are likely to have a lifelong effect. The number of detained kids in the US is higher due to its border with Mexico and the influx of immigrants, but that does not justify violating international treaties the US ratified. At the minimum, the Border Patrol should strive to improve conditions and expedite family reunification. 

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