YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


U.S. Violates Laws in Handling of Refugee Kids, Group Says

Youngsters, a majority of them teens, are held in jailhouse conditions, Amnesty International charges. Government pledges reform.

June 19, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Amnesty International on Wednesday accused the United States of locking up unaccompanied refugee children under jailhouse conditions that violate standards for the treatment of people fleeing persecution.

In a report based on a survey of detention centers, visits to facilities and interviews with detainees and lawyers, the human rights group charged that hundreds of young refugees, mostly teenagers, are treated as criminals although they have broken no laws.

"It's hard to imagine the American government subjecting children to this kind of treatment," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Much of the treatment violates international human rights law and subjects the children to deprivation, if not outright abuse."

Amnesty said it found that refugees were often mingled with juvenile offenders, and many were subjected to such harsh measures as shackling, strip-searches and solitary confinement. The government frequently failed to provide social services or access to legal aid, the group said.

The number of unaccompanied minors detained after seeking to enter the U.S. claiming persecution or mistreatment in their home countries has more than doubled in recent years, reaching 5,385 in 2001.

The refugees can be held in shelters or in secure facilities, and Amnesty said about a third are in detention centers designed for juvenile offenders. Children from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and China account for more than half of those in custody longer than 72 hours.

After years of hit-or-miss efforts by the government to improve conditions, a Health and Human Services Department official said, the Bush administration is determined to carry out reforms.

"We certainly share the concern of Amnesty International that in every case we should make an assessment of the needs of the individual child," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families. "This is a useful report, from our standpoint."

Health and Human Services inherited the refugee children program from immigration authorities March 1, after Congress decided a social service agency was better-suited for the task than was law enforcement.

Amnesty's investigation was carried out before the transfer to HHS, but the human rights group said many of the same detention facilities and policies are still in use.

Horn said HHS has reduced the number of children in secure facilities, increased the number of shelter and foster-care beds for them, reduced the proportion of children in secure facilities and is expanding a list of lawyers who can help the refugees.

Placing HHS in charge of refugee children's welfare is only a first step, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

She recently introduced legislation that would require the government to appoint an advocate for each refugee child, promote foster care instead of detention, and limit the use of shackles, strip-searches and other harsh measures.

"What we are trying to achieve is a little bit of humanity in a system that has been pretty inhumane," Feinstein said. Nonetheless, she said, political prospects for her legislation are "tough."

"A lot of people do not want to spend any money on these children," Feinstein said. "It's kind of 'out of sight, out of mind,' and that's just wrong."

The administration has budgeted $37 million for refugee children, Schulz said. He estimated that an additional $16 million is needed.

At any given time, the government has about 500 such children in custody as their pleas for asylum are being considered, or until foster care or a family member can be found. The average time in custody is a little more than 30 days, but Amnesty found that some children are held much longer.

It cited the case of Malik, who arrived in the United States two years ago, fleeing civil strife in the African country of Guinea.

Officials with what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service imprisoned the mentally retarded 16-year-old in an adult facility. He languished there for months without a hearing until older inmates who felt sorry for him helped him get a lawyer. During his incarceration, he was abused by older inmates and guards used pepper spray on him, Amnesty said. He remains in detention.

Amnesty said it found glaring shortcomings in the treatment of girls. Because girls account for only 25% of the refugee children, there are fewer housing options available for them.

"Girls are more likely to be housed with adults, or with juvenile offenders ... placing them at risk of abuse," the report concluded.

At one facility visited by child advocates, a male guard could view the girls' toilet and shower area through a plate glass window. Doors to toilet and shower stalls were 2 to 3 feet tall, offering little privacy.

Wendy Young, of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, said she hopes HHS will follow through with reforms.

"We are working with an agency that seems willing to fix the problems," Young said. "We are seeing improvements already, but can you look at the system and say it has been fixed? No."

Los Angeles Times Articles