By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
UNITED NATIONS – Less than three months after the Trump administration announced it would no longer participate in the development of a Global Compact on Migration, the Holy See and Catholic migration groups are urging for an end to the detention of migrant and refugee children as delegates meet at the United Nations to continue to negotiate the agreement.
On Wednesday, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, apostolic nuncio to the United Nations, chaired a meeting on “Ending the Detention of Migrant and Refugee Children: Best Interest Determination and Alternatives to Detention,” and said the verdict is clear: detaining vulnerable children is a harmful practice and should be stopped.
“Detention of migrant and refugee children happens despite solid evidence of how harmful this practice is for children and their development, and despite a growing international consensus – reinforced by international and regional jurisprudence – that immigration detention of children is never in their best interests,” said Archbishop Auza.
“Neither is it in the best interests of States, as it is expensive, burdensome, and rarely deters would-be migrants,” he said.
The 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes that decisions should be made in “the best interest of the child,” and according to the U.N. Refugee Agency’s official position, detention is never in their best interest, regardless of legal status.
Ted Chaiban, director of programs for the United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF), said that numerous studies have evidenced that children that experience detention experience health and development issues, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While Arcbishop Auza described the Holy See’s push to end the practice of children detention as an “ambitious goal,” he encouraged the U.N. delegates to implement best practices of nations that have already followed suit in ending child migrant detention.
Father Michael Czerny, under-secretary of the Vatican’s newly created Migrants and Refugees section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told the U.N. delegates that “vulnerable people on the move are a priority of Pope Francis.”
Father Czerny, who served as moderator for the panel, set the stage for the discussion saying the individuals in question must be viewed as full persons, rather than by their legal status.
“The fact that they are migrant or refugee cannot possibly reduce the meaning, scope or priority of their best interest,” he said. “If anything, the humanitarian emergency engulfing them should ‘raise the bar’ and the relevant institutions should ‘bend over backwards.’”
Father Czerny invoked Francis’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 where he called on the international community to recognize “the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants, fully respecting their dignity and seeking to meet their needs when they are alone, but also the needs of their parents, for the good of the entire family.”
He also cautioned against allowing the upcoming discussions to be plagued by tensions between national security and the best interest of children.
“Let polarizing confrontation be avoided,” Father Czerny heeded.
Instead, he encouraged those participating in the conversation to embrace an approach of integral human development, as laid out in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’.
“The horizon against which to understand the best interest of a child – as of every human being at every stage of life – is integral human development,” said Father Czerny.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies, said the rate of child detention around the world should be “alarming.”
Fifty-one percent of the world’s refugees are under age 18, Kerwin noted, and in the period between 2013 and 2016, U.S. border officials arrested over 165,000 unaccompanied minors from four countries: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
In 2016, there were estimated to be over 290,000 refugee children in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia – though exact numbers are often hard to come by, Kerwin warned.
While many areas around the world have experienced a record-breaking influx of refugees in recent years, delegates were pressed not to simply get caught up in the numbers, but to consider the individual lives at stake.
Ashley Feasley, policy director for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told the story of an eight-year old from Honduras who was being held at the Texas-Mexico border, and wrote a letter to President Barrack Obama asking for release from detention so that she could be free “like Elsa,” – a reference to the popular Disney film, Frozen.
“Stories like this are an important reminder to us of who we’re talking about,” said Feasley.
During the Bush administration, Feasley said the practice of detention was put into place as a means of deterrence to stem the flow of refugees, a practice that continued into the Obama administration and continues into the Trump administration. She warned of increased family separation at the border and increased pressure on agencies to undermine their existing protections.
Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General for the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed to legislation passed in April 2017 in Italy, which he cited as a policy that responded in the “best interest” of children.
Following the arrival of more than 26,000 unaccompanied children in 2016, Italy passed legislation that mandated that these minors would not be subjected to return to their home country if it would cause harm, the introduction of a stream-lined reception program to process their entry into the country, and voluntary programs of family reunification, as well as foster-parenting.
Msgr. Vitillio noted that UNICEF’s coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe hailed the policy as model legislation.
He also pointed to the example of Caritas International Belgium, which works with 200 partner programs in various countries to restore family links for migrant children.
The Caritas program first seeks the consent of the minors, who often fear for the safety of their parents and have been warned by them not to disclose information, Msgr. Vitillio noted. Once consent is given, in-country social workers visit the parents and provide a communications link to their children, along with administrative, psychological, and legal support, as well as the option of voluntary return.
Cherwin also pointed to the example of Ireland who had enacted bans on child detention, and Italy and Spain who are moving in that direction.
“The best policy is widely recognized, that is: no detention,” said Cherwin. “Alternatives really work.”