November 25, 2019
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in 2016. Two weeks ago the study was presented by the lead expert overseeing the process, Manfred Nowak.
The overall findings were stark indeed.
Data collected for the study and well-grounded scientific approximations indicate that, altogether, a minimum of between 1.3 and 1.5 million children are deprived of liberty per year. Of those, the largest number are in institutions (430,000–680,000), followed by those in the administration of justice (410,000), migration-related detention (330,000), in armed conflict situations (35,000) and for national security reasons (1,500). An additional 19,000 children are living with their primary caregivers in prisons. The Independent Expert wishes to stress that those figures are arrived at on the basis of scientifically sound methodologies, yet remain highly conservative owing to the scarcity of official and reliable disaggregated data. In particular, the figures do not include the approximately 1 million children in police custody and an even higher number of children deprived of liberty de facto in institutions.
On migration related detention, the authors note:
Research for the study recognizes that migration-related detention of children cannot be considered as a measure of last resort and is never in the best interests of the child and, therefore, should always be prohibited. This applies to unaccompanied and separated children, as well as to children with their families. Detaining children to “keep families together” or for their “protection”, where alternative care is lacking, can never be a justification.
In the concluding section of the report, a number of recommendations are made for states to reduce the number of children deprived of liberty. The section on migration-related detention includes:
- The Independent Expert urges States to prohibit and end all forms of migration-related detention of children and their families.
- States should: prohibit child and family immigration detention in law; decriminalize irregular entry, stay and exit; adopt child-sensitive identification and referral procedures in the context of migration; and dedicate sufficient resources to appropriate non-custodial solutions for children and their families.
- Unaccompanied children should be provided with alternative care and accommodation, in line with the United Nations Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. States should provide refugee children with access to asylum procedures and other appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance, including family reunification, education and health care.
- Children with family members should be allowed to remain with their families in non-custodial, community-based contexts while their immigration status is resolved and the children’s best interests are assessed. Children should not be separated from their families. The need to keep the family together is not a valid basis for deprivation of liberty of the child; instead, the State should provide non-custodial solutions for the entire family.
What about the U.S.? Yeah we're still number 1...
During the press conference Nowak was asked about the U.S. specifically. He said in response to the question that the U.S. still had 100,000 children in migration related detention, but did not clarify what this meant. The only coverage about the event in english was a Reuters report, but there was little follow up in the article about what was included in this measure, which was clearly incorrect - but the media ran with it anyway.
Last week Nowak corrected the record:
But on Tuesday, he told The AP that figure was drawn from a U.N. refugee agency report citing data from 2015, the latest figure his team could find. That was before President Donald Trump, whose policies on migration have drawn criticism, was elected.
Nowak also said the figure of over 100,000 referred to the cumulative number of migrant children held in detention at any point during that year, whether “for two days or eight months or the whole year,” not all simultaneously.
He reiterated, however, that the U.S. is holding far more children than are other countries for which he has reliable figures.
New U.S. government data released this month found 69,550 migrant children have been held in U.S. government custody over the past year.
So we know the figure was intended as a cumulative for a year (which is what we thought). But the correction still needs more correction - at least as reported by NBC News
What we do know. Currently there are 4,200 children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services and oversees the detention of unaccompanied immigrant children. Over the course of Fiscal Year 2019 (October 2018 to September 2019), 69,550 children were placed on ORR custody. The peak in daily average of ORR detentions was 14,000 in November of 2018, and at the time, the average length of custody was 93 days.
The figure of 69,550 in the NBC report is just ORR detention.
In addition to these children, there are a large number who are detained with their families either in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or in Border Patrol facilities. This is a difficult number to find, but we do know that Border Patrol apprehended at least 430,000 people who were part of family units in FY 2019. Customs and Border Protection does not break down how many of these are children and how many are adults, but if only one-third are children, then 143,000 children spent some time in a Border Patrol facility as part of a family unit last year, with some of these families (and children) then transferred to ICE for longer term detention.
So we can conservatively estimate that at least 200,000 children, and likely many more, spent some time in immigrant related detention in FY 2019.
Aside from immigration, we also know that there are 51,000 children in jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities in this country on any given day, including 5,000 youth held in adult prisons. Of all incarcerated youth, 69 percent of children are of color.
So, Nowak was right about the important thing: The United State is the world’s leader in incarceration - of adults, of children, and of immigrants. What are we going to do about that?