The United Nations’ human rights chief said Monday she was appalled by the conditions migrants and refugees face in U.S. detention facilities, intensifying a challenge to the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that children stopped by border agents should never be held in immigration detention facilities or separated from their families, and that detention should not be the norm for adults, either.
“Any deprivation of liberty of adult migrants and refugees should be a measure of last resort,” the U.N. commissioner said, appealing for “noncustodial alternatives.”
A spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, Ravina Shamdasani, said Bachelet decided to speak out more forcefully than before after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued a report last week warning of dangerous conditions in U.S. immigration detention facilities.
“When they finally believe they have arrived in safety, they may find themselves separated from their loved ones and locked in undignified conditions,” she said. “This should never happen anywhere.”
President Trump said Sunday that migrants were coming from “unbelievable poverty” and that “those are people that are very happy with what’s going on because, relatively speaking, they’re in much better shape right now” in U.S. custody.
He went on to praise the work of the Border Patrol and other law enforcement officers on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying: “It’s incredible what they’re doing. They’ve had to become nurses. They’ve had to become janitors.”
The Homeland Security report was the second by the inspector general’s office to criticize conditions at temporary detention centers in Texas where migrants are held.
The first, based on visits to Border Patrol facilities in west Texas in May, showed dozens of migrants packed into spaces so tight that some had to stand on toilets. It detailed how 900 migrants were in a 125-person facility at one point, with many held for weeks in violation of the government’s policy.
Last week’s report said several Border Patrol facilities in south Texas were dangerously overcrowded. Detainees banged on cell windows, shouted and pressed notes to a window for inspectors, according to the report. A photo showed a man holding a piece of cardboard with one word: “Help.”
Inspectors also warned that many children had no access to showers and were being detained long past the maximum of 72 hours. Five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.
“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,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile.
“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,” she said.
Bachelet acknowledged the “sovereign prerogative” of countries to set the conditions under which foreigners are permitted to enter and stay, but she also highlighted their human rights obligations. Her office said she recognized the complexity of challenges faced by migrants’ countries of origin, the ones they travel through and destinations such as the U.S.