The U.N. is calling on nations to end the detention of migrant children worldwide, citing mental and physical health implications as well as cost.
In a press release on Monday, the United Nations Network on Migration (UNNM) said the detention of child migrants is a violation of child rights and is damaging to children’s physical and mental health.
Instead, the network suggests governments replace the practice with community-based programs, case management, and other human rights-based alternatives.
US Child Detention
In the United States, President Donald Trump’s immigration policies such as family separation and prolonged detention of families including children have been a source of controversy, as several migrant children have died while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since Trump took office in 2017.
In July, the U.N. human rights chief said that she was “deeply shocked” by conditions under which migrants and refugees are held at U.S. detention centers.
“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,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said.
Conditions in some U.S. migrant detention facilities have been so severe as to prompt activists groups like Never Again Action and Movimiento Cosecha, as well as some lawmakers, to refer to the facilities as “concentration camps.”
In August, the Trump administration announced that it had scrapped a rule limiting the number of time migrant children could be held in custody, allowing them to be detained indefinitely.
Physical and Cognitive Harm
“The [UNHCR] position is that children should not be detained for immigration-related purposes, irrespective of their legal/migratory status or that of their parents and that detention is never in their best interests,” The Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on Migrant Workers affirmed in a 2019 progress report on the detention of asylum seekers and refugees.
“Appropriate care arrangements and community-based programs need to be in place to ensure adequate reception of children and their families.”
According to studies cited by the UNNM in their press release, detention of child migrants is detrimental to physical and cognitive development, regardless of the conditions in which they are detained, whether they are detained with or without family, and whether the detainment period is for a short or extended period of time.
Effects of detention on children include nightmares, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, which can linger long into adulthood.
One such study from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found there to be “no empirical evidence” to indicate detention deters irregular immigration or that it caused immigrants to be discouraged from seeking asylum.
The study concluded that as the detention of migrants and asylum-seekers in some countries has increased, the number of people seeking to enter those countries has either increased or remained constant.
Around the globe, migration has increased across the board regardless of detention policies. The study attributes this with the mixed motivations of migrants and the complex choices they face.
According to UNICEF, immigration officials in countries like Ireland and Costa Rica have successfully implemented humane immigration policies for children that do not entail detention, though it notes only a few countries have eliminated the practice of detaining migrant children.
“Nonetheless, there are some encouraging developments. Immigration officers in Ireland and Costa Rica immediately link unaccompanied children with child protection services. In other countries, legislative steps are being taken to either eliminate or greatly reduce the detention of children.”
Other examples of countries that have developed case management based alternatives to detention listed in the UNICEF report include Malta, the United Kingdom, and other European countries, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia.
According to the UNNM press release, not only do these alternatives avoid the detention of migrant children, but are also more cost-effective and are associated with high rates of compliance with immigration procedures.