BU Today: [POV] Child Detention at the Border Is Torture

July 18, 2019

Written by: Sondra Crosby & George Annas

Each day brings, it seems, new horrors from American child detention facilities on the Texan border: children in cramped cells, in dirty, squalid conditions, many suffering from scabies, shingles, and chicken pox, separated from their families. The World War II Japanese-American internment camps have been used as an analogy, but a more recent American horror may fit better: America’s post-9/11 “black sites.”

The CIA allegedly used these secret facilities to torture Muslim terrorist suspects (like immigrants, branded as “the other”) to avoid any public accountability, and like the conditions in the detention centers on the border, with the formal review and approval of the US Department of Justice. The eyewitness reports of hundreds of children sleeping on a cold concrete floor, bright lights always on, limited access to bathrooms, no access to soap, showers, or toothbrushes, and deprived of palatable food echoes the descriptions of the conditions at black sites. And, as with the alleged torture of prisoners in black sites, the US Department of Justice has approved these in court.

One of us, Sondra Crosby, has evaluated scores of torture survivors from around the world, including current and former detainees in US detention at Guantanamo Bay, and we both know that torture can have long-lasting psychological and physical consequences, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, and depression. The effects can be lifelong.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the current treatment of children in these detention centers is torture. Under international law, as spelled out in the Convention against Torture, torture includes any act by which severe mental pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted on a person for the purpose of intimidating or coercing him or a third person. The intentional forced separation of children from their parents and inhuman conditions cause immense suffering, will result in long-term mental harm for scores of children, and by official government accounts, are being done for the purpose of discouraging asylum seekers from seeking safety in the United States.

You don’t have to be an international human rights lawyer or an expert in refugee health and torture to arrive at this conclusion. Any of the lawyers, physicians, and legislators who visited the facility within the last week could conclude the same—informed by our country’s past actions. Torture, we have witnessed, leads to more torture. Imprisoning and mistreatment of children leads to more imprisonment and mistreatment of children. It has to simply stop.

Prisons for children are inherently cruel, and as we ultimately did with the black sites, they must simply be closed. We need new rules that prohibit the imprisonment of children altogether, require that children be kept with their parents as long as possible, and if their parents are not available, that they be united with their relatives or guardians as soon as they are identified.

Caring and decent Americans are sending diapers, soap, and toothpaste and contributing to NGOs to try to improve the conditions in which these children are held, and Congress has appropriated more money. But the actions of decent people will never be enough to mitigate the harms caused by an indecent government. Enough pain inflicted on children. Enough.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


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