By: Lorraine Ma – The Chicago Bureau
Carlos was 16 when he left Honduras for the United States. Several years before, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch had devastated Honduras, leaving much of the Central American nation trapped and suffering starvation, extreme poverty and disease.
Carlos, whose real name is not used here to protect his identity, was sent back for more than 20 times trying to cross the Mexican border. He finally arrived when he was 17, but was met with more resistance in California: detention.
“I felt like an animal,” Carlos said. His story is one of the many accounts recorded by the International Detention Coalition in their campaign to end child detention. Carlos now works at a homeless refuge in Los Angeles.
When he did something wrong, Carlos said officers at the San Diego detention center would place him in ‘the hole,’ a small room with no windows.
“I started thinking that I was a mean guy then, and that I probably deserved it,” he said, “I was believing myself, that I was bad, that I had something that other people can see but I couldn’t see.”
Hardly an uncommon story – and one that is certainly not limited to this country.
In 2011, about 7,000 minors arrived in the U.S., most of them having come from Latin American nations such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
More than 70 percent of these minors are boys, and 17 percent of them are under the age of 14. The majority of minors are cared for through a network of state-licensed providers managed though the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
These care provider facilities are located close to areas where immigration officials apprehend large numbers of aliens, and children are kept there while the office makes decisions about case management, clinical services, and potential repatriation.
The issue of detaining youth who are seeking asylum is a fact that continues to haunt many minors and their families and stress resources of receiving countries across the globe.
Consider Australia, a country that might surprise in its allegedly harsh detention conditions, according to Amnesty International Australia. Even though its asylum seeking population is far behind most receiving countries such as the US, Canada and the UK, Australia has one of the harshest detention measures, Amnesty reports.
Its asylum-seeking population is much less than nations like the U.K., the United States and Canada. But Australia’s Migrant Act mandates detention sentences for undocumented people or those who arrive on Australian soil without a visa, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. This translates into high numbers of detentions for minors and families from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Amnesty said.
Worse, according to Graham Thom of Amnesty International Australia, children and families have no way of fighting the detention of minors who are often held for indefinite terms in remote centers on islands and in mining towns while authorities try to find housing for them.
“That’s it, they’re stuck,” Thom said.
In these centers, children are often detained with adults and exposed to suicides, violence, and guards imposing tough restrains on wayward residents.
“We know the psychological damage this does to the children so we have very real fears for some of [them],” he said.
Officials with Amnesty and other monitoring groups worry that even the children who are not held suffer mental and psychological damage if their parents are detained.
For its part, Japan has asylum seekers arriving from Burma, Sri Lanka, Turkey and several countries in Africa.
Though it is legally possible for them to get a visa waiver, the government tries to detain them anyway, usually taking the father and leaving the mother and children to local asylum agencies, according to Akiko Ogawa.
Ogawa works for the Japan Association for Refugees, one of the many non-profit organizations that met together in Geneva this July for the Annual UNHCR Consultations. The UNHCR is the United Nations’ refugee agency.
Ogawa said she once met some Burmese children who stood by, helpless, as their parents were taken into detention for entering the country illegally in front of them. From that point, the children would often cry at night, asking for their parents or fearing the same fate, she said.
“That affects a lot mentally,” she said.
Because of the psychological damage detention does to children, some countries are also seeking alternatives to it.
Last year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of putting minors into boarding schools instead of detention centers. However, because the ruling created a huge financial burden on the government, it has not been formally implemented and is currently still in “tinkering condition,” according to Anat Ben Dor from the Refugee Rights Clinic at the University of Tel Aviv.
Asylum seekers in Israel are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. While children used to be detained along with adults, because of the work done by legal aid, they are now detained in separate prison facilities, she said.
“Prison authorities like to boast how they cater to the needs of children and families,” Dor said. “You have to have very fine eyes to see the accommodations. I think [catering to children’s needs] is near to non-existent.”