United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday that she is “appalled by the conditions” being forced upon migrants after they cross the southern U.S. border and admonished the federal government for failing to find noncustodial alternatives.
“Any deprivation of liberty of adult migrants and refugees should be a measure of last resort,” she said, adding that where detention is necessary, it should be for the shortest period and under conditions that satisfy international human rights standards.
“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,” Bachelet said.
The high commissioner singled out the treatment of migrant children, saying she was “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.”
In 2018, Bachelet’s predecessor as high commissioner criticized the Trump administration’s child-separation policy. “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said at the time.
On Monday, Bachelet said immigration detention — which she noted is never in the best interests of a child — can have a significant effect on a child’s health and development. “[C]onsider the damage being done every day by allowing this alarming situation to continue,” she said.
Several human rights bodies have determined that detention of migrant children under current conditions at the U.S. border violates international law as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Bachelet’s statement comes days after the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog issued a report about detention center conditions.
The Office of Inspector General concluded that the “urgent” situation required “immediate attention and action” and advised the government to “take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults.”
According to the Associated Press, Tuesday’s report included new details about the centers in the Rio Grande Valley. It also stated that at least three facilities denied children access to showers and that “some children under age 7 had been held in jammed centers for more than two weeks. Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end.”
Notwithstanding the report, Trump accused the mainstream media on Sunday of “writing phony and exaggerated accounts of the Border Detention Centers.”
Like the president, DHS officials have remained steadfast in their defense of Border Patrol station conditions. On Sunday, acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan called the situation “extraordinarily challenging” during an interview on ABC News’s “This Week.”
According to a DHS management memo dated July 1, the daily average of people who crossed the southern border either “illegally or arrived at ports of entry without proper documents” in May was more than 4,600. During the same month two years ago, the number was below 700 a day.
The number of people in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody has dropped nearly 40 percent in recent weeks, from more than 19,000 a month ago to about 11,000 in recent days, according to a DHS official familiar with the latest statistics who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose unpublished data.
The DHS official told The Washington Post that the agency and conditions at its detention centers “remain at crisis levels” because CBP detention capacity border-wide is only about 4,500.
The agency has added three “soft-sided” tent facilities to ease the overcrowding, with additional capacity for about 2,000 detainees, the official said. The air-conditioned tents have shower facilities, mattress and recreational activities.
DHS officials say the number of unaccompanied minors in CBP custody has dropped from more than 2,500 in early June to fewer than 350 in recent days.
Homeland Security officials attribute the falling numbers to a reduction in border crossings as a result of an enforcement crackdown by the Mexican government.