(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S. border with Mexico has surged to over fifty thousand, with more children expected to arrive in the United States this year. Many of these children are fleeing from organized crime and gang violence, insecurity and poverty in their home countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico and El Salvador. Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. government to take immediate steps to address this humanitarian crisis and ensure that the rights of children who arrive unaccompanied in the United States are protected, in accordance with its obligations under international law.
The unprecedented levels of organized crime and gang related violence in Mexico and many Central American countries has spurred thousands of unaccompanied minors to migrate to the United States. The reality for many migrants who make the journey to the United States through Mexico can be devastating and dangerous. Riding precariously on the tops of freight trains, many are met with discrimination and xenophobia, targeted by people smugglers and traffickers, and prey to kidnapping by criminal gangs - in many instances in collusion with government officials. Every year, thousands of migrants are ill-treated, abducted or raped. All migrants are at risk of abuse, but women and children – particularly unaccompanied children – are especially vulnerable. Those who commit abuses against migrants are rarely held to account.
Upon arrival in the United States, unaccompanied children are detained by U.S. Border Patrol and then turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services while placed in deportation proceedings. Since October 2013, the number of apprehended children has already surpassed 52,193. This is nearly twice as many children who were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol during the same period in 2013.
The U.S. government expects the total number of apprehended unaccompanied children to reach over 90,000 by the end of September across border states such as Texas, Arizona and California. The ages of some of the unaccompanied children have been as young as five years old. According to recent reports, Border Patrol are detaining children from Central America for days or weeks before transferring them to ORR. While children from these countries face a dangerous environment when repatriated, unaccompanied Mexican children are quickly repatriated across the border at an expedited pace in comparison to children from other countries and are at risk of kidnappings, killings, and rape from gangs in Mexican border towns. The situation of repatriated Central American children may be even more precarious.
Under international law, the U.S. government has an obligation to ensure that the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children are respected, protected and fulfilled. International law requires that children should only be detained in exceptional circumstances and for the shortest possible time. Furthermore, in the extremely limited circumstances when children can be detained, the conditions of detention that they are held in should adhere to both international and U.S. standards governing detention.
All children should have due process safeguards during deportation proceedings, including prompt access to counsel, translation and interpretation services and the right not to be returned to a country where he or she would be at risk of serious human rights abuses, including taking steps to ensure that regional governments are taking effective measures to protect the best interests of the unaccompanied children repatriated.
President Obama has now requested that Congress provide more than $2 billion in funding to control the surge of unaccompanied children at the border and the power to expedite deportations.
Children fleeing unprecedented levels of organized crime and gang violence are not pawns in the political debate about immigration reform. Many are survivors of sexual violence and at risk of kidnapping, trafficking and other serious human rights abuses.
Steven Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA said, "The U.S. government should not compound the suffering of these children by rushing to remove them from the country. Its response to this crisis has to be comprehensive. The United States should take steps to ensure that the rights of these children are respected in accordance with its obligations under international law."
Steps needed to ensure the rights of these children include the following:
- Ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are never held in immigration detention;
- Ensure that all unaccompanied migrant children are appropriately cared for and have access to education, health care and other essential services;
- Ensure that children who may be survivors of sexual violence have access to appropriate medical and psychological services;
- Ensure due process safeguards during deportation/removal proceedings, including prompt access to counsel, translation and interpretation services and the appointment of a guardian charged with representing their best interests;
- Ensure that no child is returned to a country where he or she would be at risk of serious human rights abuses.
The United States should also redouble its effort to work with governments in the region to improve human security and the protection of human rights, including by:
- Coordinating human rights compliant measures to combat criminal gangs that commit abuses against migrants;
- Disseminating widely, in co-ordination with civil society, accessible information among communities liable to undertake irregular migration, particularly children and women. The information should clearly explain migrants' rights, outline patterns of abuse experienced by migrants, provide telephone numbers for services, and detail how to file complaints and secure consular assistance.
For more information on Amnesty International's work on Refugee and Migrants Rights in the United States and the Americas, please see: United States of America: "Why am I here?" Children in Immigration Detention; Jailed without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA; In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest and Invisible Victims, Migrants on the Move in Mexico.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.