Crimes against humanity? Yes.
July 3, 2019
On International Human Rights Day last year, Prof. Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, penned an op-ed titled, The Worst Cruelty is Our Indifference. Melzer dedicated a large portion of this piece to the treatment of migrants:
Today, I am particularly concerned about the unspeakable suffering of people on the move, those millions of women, men and children who have left their homes to seek safety and opportunity elsewhere, but who all too often get trapped in border-zones, detention centers, deserts or at sea, exposed not only to deliberate abuse, but also to the worst cruelty of all: our own indifference.
We know these people are exploited by smugglers, traffickers and corrupt officials, we know they are being tortured, raped, enslaved, and butchered for their organs. We know they have nowhere else to go. And yet, no one feels responsible. Instead, we erect physical and mental barriers, we think and speak of hostile invasion and send the military to defend our borders. But today I ask: against whom? Against this ragtag “army” of emaciated bodies, carrying their belongings in plastic bags and babies in their arms?
Have we shrunk so far from our own humanity that we can no longer recognize theirs? Or are we simply too comfortable to recognize that much of our own prosperity grows on the ashes of other peoples’ lives, on the swamps of inhumane working conditions, on the blood spilt by conflicts fought with our weapons, on the smoldering remnants of an environment destroyed by our extractive companies? After we have exploited their labor, ransacked their environment, colluded with their dictators and fueled conflict that turned their lands into battlefields – are we really surprised they come knocking on our doors saying they would rather live at our place now?
Last year, Melzer’s office wrote an extensive report on the treatment of migrants and the emerging practices of states that amount to torture or ill-treatment. We reviewed this report in light of specific practices in the United States related to detention, which you can read here. Melzer’s statement upon release of the report concluded with, “Moreover, State officials or private citizens must be aware that their personal involvement in shaping, promoting and implementing policies and practices which expose migrants to torture or ill-treatment may amount to complicity or other participation in crimes against humanity or war crimes.”
In recent weeks the situation of people in detention at the border has received increasing attention in the media. Members of Congress have visited facilities, and yesterday the Department of Homeland Security’s, Office of Inspector General released a report on conditions in five border facilities operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). You can read the full report here, a summary from Associated Press of key findings include:
The report details several potential violations of federal law or Border Patrol standards:
— Two facilities inspected had not provided children access to hot meals until the week that auditors arrived. Some adults were only receiving bologna sandwiches, causing constipation and in some cases requiring medical attention.
— Of 2,669 children detained by the Border Patrol in the region, 826, or 31 percent, had been held there longer than 72 hours. More than 50 children under the age of seven were waiting to be moved to long-term facilities, some of them for more than two weeks. In one photo, women and children appeared to be sleeping on the ground under Mylar blankets.
— Many adults hadn’t showered despite having been held for as long as a month. Some were being given wet wipes to clean themselves.
The report also detailed “security incidents” at multiple facilities, including one case in which detained migrants refused to re-enter their cell after it had been cleaned. People detained have also in some cases clogged toilets with their Mylar blankets and socks in order to be let out of the cells.
Conditions at the Clint, Texas CBP facility emerged last week in a separate exposé from the Associated Press, based on interviews with attorneys who were inspecting the facility to evaluate compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement, which details the treatment of children held in detention.
Meanwhile, the situation of people seeking asylum in the United States, who have been sent back to Mexico as part of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, is deteriorating quickly. Human Rights Watch released a report yesterday based on dozens of interviews with asylum seekers who have been returned to Mexico to await an asylum hearing. From the executive summary of the report:
Among those asylum seekers Human Rights Watch interviewed and those interviewed by a local advocacy organization, several reported attacks on themselves or others in the town, including violent assaults, sexual violence, and kidnapping. A US government screening process to remove people from the MPP program who face harm in Mexico is allowing less than 1 percent of returned asylum seekers to exit the program and pursue their claims within the United States.
Meanwhile, asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico have no meaningful access to due process. Immigration attorneys and advocates in El Paso, Texas, told Human Rights Watch the need for legal services for returned asylum seekers in Mexico is overwhelming and that attorneys working to provide low-cost or free representation face serious barriers to providing that representation, including returned asylum seekers’ lack of fixed addresses and telephone numbers.
Human Rights Watch also confirmed reports that US Border Patrol agents have routinely refused or failed to return asylum seekers’ personal identification documents. Without identification, asylum seekers face difficulties proving the custody of their children or receiving money wired by family members. They may also be barred from travel, meaning they cannot freely seek asylum elsewhere or return home in cases of extenuating circumstances.
The Migrant Protection Protocols program is separating families, including people who are the primary caretakers of children, siblings, and parents. The separations can wreak severe psychological harm and split shared claims for protection across US jurisdictions, adding to the already hefty immigration court backlog.
The US should immediately cease returning asylum seekers to Mexico and instead ensure them access to humanitarian support, safety, and due process in asylum proceedings. Congress should urgently act to prohibit using government funds to continue this program. The US should manage asylum-seeker arrivals through a genuine humanitarian response that includes fair determinations of an asylum seeker’s eligibility to remain or not in the US. The US should simultaneously pursue longer-term efforts to address the root causes of forced displacement in Central America.
Everyday the Trump administration is engaged in crimes against humanity, and not just on the battlefields in Afghanistan and indiscriminate bombings in Syria. It is happening on our border with Mexico with the treatment of people seeking asylum and in detention centers scattered across our country, where people are held for indeterminate amounts of time, under well documented, abusive conditions.
The conditions, we keep reminding people, are not new. Indeed, if there were an actual trial for crimes against humanity concerning the treatment of migrants Clinton, Bush and Obama would be there too. But Trump’s brash rhetoric, unapologetic celebration of cruelty and expanded use of the worst institutionalized techniques he inherited, all to drum up political support, has made this a particularly dangerous time. Trump's presidency is in some ways a legacy of past indifference, a time when immigrant communities and advocates mobilized and educated, protested and demanded change, to be received with inaction from political leaders. Those times are changing, we hope. Certainly the voices are multiplying.
Yesterday, people around the country protested these conditions in the streets and in congressional offices. Here, at least, for the moment, “our indifference” is giving way to action. The question is, will the political leadership in this country listen? Will they end the practice of immigrant incarceration, which as we documented last week, impacts at least 100,000 people on any given day? Until they do, they are complicit in crimes against humanity.