U.N. report: Detaining migrant children harms their mental health

By Patrick Timmons
Migrant families are processed at the central bus station before being taken to Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas, on June 29. File Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
Migrant families are processed at the central bus station before being taken to Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas, on June 29. File Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE

EL PASO, Texas, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- A United Nations health expert is calling on nations to stop detaining migrant children and separating them from their families because it violates their right to mental health.

"Undermining family unity in the context of human mobility is detrimental to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents on the move and generates effects that could last for years or even generations to come," Dr. Dainius Pūras wrote in a statement to accompany his interim report Friday to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.


European countries detain migrant children seeking asylum but they do not separate them from their families, as the U.S. government did this summer at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 9 of which prohibits separating children from their families.


Pūras, a Lithuanian medical doctor who has served as the U.N.'s special rapporteur on physical and mental health since 2014, identified violations of children's rights to "education, social protection, health, safety and security, access to justice, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and non-discrimination," all of which "can have significant implications for their mental health and well-being."

Pūras told UPI he focused his report, titled "Right to Mental Health of People on the Move," on mental health and migration because "outdated practices are used too often." He wants to focus on "how to invest in mental health, and how to manage situations with large numbers of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers" because these can "offer huge opportunities for the global community and for each country."

Pūras's report comes at a tense moment for U.S. relations with the 193-member body. Nikki Haley, who is resigning as the U.S. ambassador to the body, has criticized the organization's experts for reports criticizing the United States rather than focusing on problems in other countries.

Pūras said he is "following closely the situation with U.S. migration policy and especially with separation and detention of children." Of more than 2,500 Central American children U.S. Border Patrol separated from their families this summer, 66 remain in government custody.


Meanwhile, a "tent city" in Tornillo,Texas, expects to expand to hold 3,800 unaccompanied migrant children by the end of the year.

President Donald Trump threatened Thursday to call up the military to shut down the southern border over a migrant caravan headed to the United States from Honduras via Mexico. He tweeted the caravan was filled with "MANY CRIMINALS" and suggested the caravan constituted an "assault on our country at our Southern border."

In fact, border crossings are at historic lows.

Pūras found the stigma migrants face affects their mental health, writing that "powerful political actors ... incite fear and xenophobia, often using myths purported as facts. For example, the connection between rises in criminality and rises in migration -- a proven falsehood -- continues to be perpetuated."

Detention is not an effective deterrent anyway, he said, as the migrants are often running for their lives.

The report defines "people on the move" as "ordinary human beings who must leave for a variety of complex, often sociopolitical reasons," with Pūras "principally concerned with those who have experienced some form of adversity owing to the nature of their departure, journey and/or reception in a new community."


The Washington Office on Latin America said in a press release Tuesday that Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the most dangerous countries in the world and police cannot handle the violence.

"If a gang is extorting you, if you are a witness to crime, if you have an abusive partner, you have two options, stay and pay the price or flee," the group said.

Migrants who flee to the United States as unaccompanied children or asylum seekers face prolonged periods in detention, which Pūras's report said, can have "adverse mental health implications."

For migrants with disabilities, Pūras said detention "may amount to a violation of the right to life free from torture and ill-treatment."

In June, Pūras was one of 11 U.N. experts calling for the Trump administration to release migrant children from detention. The experts wrote, "Detention of children is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture. Children are being used as a deterrent to irregular migration, which is unacceptable."

Pūras' new report refers to research by public health specialists showing that regularizing undocumented migrants' immigration status leads to positive mental and physical health outcomes and that an irregular immigration status can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.


Community responses are a vital way to address migrants and their mental health needs, said Julie Hannah, a senior researcher at the University of Essex who advises Pūras.

"Engaging communities" -- not just of migrants, but those who receive migrants -- "in determining their fate produces far better outcomes than when they are not consulted," Hannah said because "far too often policy responses are dominated by rhetoric that does not reflect the lived experience of people on the move and the communities to which they arrive."

Part of the solution, she said, may be found in "social justice and human rights-oriented training and dialogue with local primary care providers" because these are "crucial for supporting communities of migrants and communities that receive them."

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