On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Donald Trump is Holding Children in Detention Centers in Circumstances Comparable to “Torture Facilities”


Migrants outside a makeshift encampment at the US Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, May 15, 2019 (Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters).

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Tomorrow is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which, I was slightly shocked to realize, I’ve been writing about most years since 2007 — see my reports from 2009, 2010 (and here), 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018.

When it first took place on June 26, 1998, 21 years ago, it was to mark the 11th anniversary of the date in 1987 when the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the UN Convention Against Torture), which I described last year as “an enormous breakthrough in the global moral struggle against the use of torture,” came into effect. As I also explained, June 26 “also marks the date in 1945 when the UN Charter, the founding document of the United Nations, was signed by 50 of the 51 original member countries (Poland signed it two months later).”

For most of the last 12 years, I have focused on the need for the US to be held accountable for the torture it inflicted, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, on prisoners rounded up and tortured in CIA “black sites” around the world, as well as the torture inflicted on prisoners in Guantánamo, in Bagram and numerous other facilities in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, where the use of torture was rife, even though George W. Bush pretended that, unlike in all the other places mentioned above, prisoners were protected by the Geneva Conventions.

As I reflect on the US’s use of torture, it strikes me in particular that we shouldn’t forget that the 40 men still held at Guantánamo — although no longer subjected to the torture programs that were prevalent at the prison in its first few years of operations — are still, for the most part, held indefinitely without charge or trial, a situation that is disgraceful for a country that claims to respect the rule of law, but that also, crucially, exerts a particular mental toll on those subjected to it — not knowing when, if ever, their imprisonment will end, because no judge has given them a sentence, and because the US establishment appears to have no notion that there should ever be an end to the hostilities in connection with which they were seized so many long and lawless years ago.

The effects of this open-ended arbitrary detention were first publicly voiced as a concern back in October 2003, when Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross — which normally keeps quiet about what its representatives see in the prisons they visit, as they work behind the scenes to ensure humane treatment of prisoners — voiced his concerns about the effects of open-ended imprisonment without charge or trial in an interview with the New York Times. With reference to a Guantánamo visit, Girod said, “One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely. The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

I can’t truly imagine how much worse that problem must be now, over 15 years since Girod first made his observations, when the prison had only been open for 21 months, rather than 6,375 days, as is the situation today, but while I leave you to reflect on that I’d also like to shift the focus to another torture story that is currently unfolding, which involves Donald Trump and his treatment of migrant children at the Mexican border.

Torturing migrant children

It’s just two days since ABC News reported that Dolly Lucio Sevier, a doctor working in private practice in Texas, had submitted a medical declaration, after visiting the Ursula facility in McAllen, in the south of the state, in which she witnessed migrant children, the youngest being just two and a half years old, “sleeping on concrete floors with the lights on 24 hours a day”, and having “no access to soap or basic hygiene,” as a result of which she stated, “The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” 

The Ursula facility is the largest Customs and Border Protection detention center in the country, and the visit took place after lawyers “found out about a flu outbreak there that sent five infants to the neonatal intensive care unit.” Lucio Sevier assessed 39 children under the age of 18, and “described conditions for unaccompanied minors at the McAllen facility as including ‘extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.’” She added that all the children she assessed “showed evidence of trauma,” and the teens “spoke of having no access to hand washing during their entire time in custody.” She compared it to being “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.”

Speaking to ABC News, she said the facility “felt worse than jail,” adding, “It just felt, you know, lawless. I mean, imagine your own children there. I can’t imagine my child being there and not being broken.”

According to Lucio Sevier, conditions for infants were “even more appalling,” with many teen mothers in custody explaining that they weren’t even able to wash their children’s bottles. As she explained in her declaration, “To deny parents the ability to wash their infant’s bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse.”

Elsewhere in the migrant detention gulag, as Rolling Stone explained, “the Associated Press and the New York Times reported on the conditions at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, which was recently visited by a group of lawyers investigating whether the facility was abiding by the Flores settlement, a 1997 agreement holding that migrant children must be held in safe and sanitary conditions.”

“This was not the case in Clint,” Rolling Stone stated, adding:

According to the Times, children as young as seven and eight “wearing clothes caked with snot and tears,” are being entrusted to care for infants. “Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants,” the report continues. “Teenage mothers are wearing clothes stained with breast milk.” The children are hungry, visibly “filthy,” and locked in cages for almost the entire day. “There is a stench,” Elora Mukherjee, one of the lawyers who visited the facility, told the Times. “The overwhelming majority of children have not bathed since they crossed the border.”

“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” Holly Cooper, a co-director of the University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic, told the AP.

For another report, see this New Yorker article. 

Meanwhile, the architect of this horror show, Donald Trump, who is planning mass deportations, has been trying to claim that it was President Obama who separated migrant children from their parents, whereas he (Trump) ended it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Rolling Stone described it:

Families attempting to cross the border under President Obama were separated only in rare circumstances, such as when there was concern for the safety of the child, or when the adult could not be confirmed to be the child’s parent. Last spring, however, the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance policy,” holding that every adult crossing the border would be prosecuted, and thus separated from their child or children. A leaked Department of Homeland Security memo revealed that family separation was an intended consequence of the policy, with authorities hoping it would deter other families from attempting to cross the border.

ABC News explained that, as a result of the policy, “2,700 children were separated from their families in a matter of weeks.” To make matters worse, as Vox reported last July, “The Trump administration just admitted it doesn’t know how many kids are still separated from their parents,” because “[t]he department that separated families at the border didn’t talk to the agency that took custody of separated kids,” and in January this year it was revealed that thousands more migrant children were separated from their parents under Trump than was previously known, because the Trump administration was separating families well before the policy was made public in April 2018.

Although Trump “signed an executive order to suspend his own administration’s zero-tolerance policy,” after it was widely criticized, Rolling Stone explained that “children are still being separated from their parents if authorities deem the parent poses a risk to the child,” adding, “Such separations are on the rise, often for reasons as petty as the parent having a traffic violation on their record.” ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt recently told the Houston Chronicle, “In the last few months these types of separations have risen drastically. The government is trying to drive a truck through what was supposed to be a very narrow exception.”

ABC news explained that “documents from the US Department of Health and Human Services — obtained by immigration rights groups and the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request — “showed more than 700 children were separated from parents between last June and May” this year.

On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Donald Trump not only needs to be held to account for not closing Guantánamo, and for having appointed a torturer to be the director of the CIA, but also for the torture he is inflicting on children at the Mexican border, where, to judge from the accounts above, US morality has well and truly gone to die.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

23 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Tomorrow is the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which I’ve been writing about most years since 2007, generally in relation to Guantanamo and the CIA torture program.

    This year, however, I examine the latest horror story to emerge from the US, via Donald Trump’s migrant detention program, and the shocking situation faced by migrant children. A doctor who recently visited one of the facilities witnessed migrant children, the youngest being just two and a half years old, “sleeping on concrete floors with the lights on 24 hours a day”, and having “no access to soap or basic hygiene,” as a result of which she stated, “The conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Thank you so much. Indeed, these children are being tortured. I honestly can’t believe Trump is getting away with this. I have seen the videos of the people who have visited the concentration camps and I have cried a lot.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Natalia. I think it’s clear that a lot of people in the States – and elsewhere – are getting upset about this, so hopefully we’ll see some changes, but fundamentally this kind of inhumanity isn’t going to stop until Trump is got rid of, and, I suspect, the entire machinery of the Republican Party that supports him. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the Democrats would stand up and assert that the richer countries have an obligation to help those less fortunate, even though America was built on immigration. There’s a ‘fortress’ mentality at work here, just as there is in Europe, even though it’s our wars, our economic pillaging, and – now – the increasing environmental inhospitability of so much of the earth, undergoing catastrophic man-made climate change, that will continue to drive more and more people to the wealthier countries of the west. If the isolationists aren’t overcome, things could get much worse, as the ‘fortress’ gets more fortified, and the growing forces of the far right advocate ever more extreme measures.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy at least four children have died…💔
    How is this possible? There are no limits to the cruel and inhumane actions the US government loves to take…no matter who the president is. It’s like “torture” is their motto. I’m horrified.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I think what shocked me the most when researching this, Natalia, was the leaked Department of Homeland Security memo revealing that “family separation was an intended consequence of the policy, with authorities hoping it would deter other families from attempting to cross the border,” as Rolling Stone out it, drawing on this Intercept article from last September: https://theintercept.com/2018/09/25/family-separation-border-crossings-zero-tolerance/
    Hostile policies – like the “hostile environment” in the UK – enable those implementing them to de-humanize their targets by pretending that the outcome of a policy is the only important thing, and that whatever impact it has on the ground on actual human beings is irrelevant. It’s shockingly heartless.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Shame on the richest country in the world! Shocking!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s the white western racist fortress mentality, Ann – the same response that was behind the Brexit vote, and that led to Europe closing borders during the migrant crisis in 2015. It’s why we so desperately need to stand with the young, and to only stand with white people if they’re demonstrably not racist or xenophobic, because the crisis is only going to get worse, as those fleeing war and environmental destruction seek safety in the west. Shameful times.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s a good round-up of the migrant detention crisis in Slate, also providing links to “reputable organizations working to provide support to those affected”: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/06/trump-border-crisis-how-to-help.html

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    CNN via NowThis – ‘Lawyer Describes Inhumane Conditions Among Children at Border Patrol Facility’:

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s extremely powerful testimony, Natalia. Heartbreaking.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    Have you seen this Andy?
    ‘60,000 child migrants detained by US in last 40 days’, BBC, June 11, 2019: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-48602222/60000-child-migrants-detained-by-us-in-last-40-days

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I hadn’t seen those figures, Asiya. Thanks. Truly shocking.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    I’m grateful for your attention to this tragedy on America’s border. As someone who has been following the alarming stories of these detentions since the mid-years of the Bush Administration, my strong advice to those with a true desire to help these immigrants is to begin right now, today, battling the the root problem — US violence, crippling sanctions, death squads, coups, resource theft, puppet despots, and imperial occupations throughout Latin America.

    This is what compels these people to flee for their lives, traveling 1000 miles or more on foot to a border that provides the only hope, slim as it may be, that their children won’t be starved, terrorized, raped, and/or murdered in the maelstrom of US-sown violence and poverty in their homeland.

    Our leaders on both sides of the aisle have created and perpetuated what is shaping into a holocaust in Latin America, and have spent all these years turning a blind eye to this human carnage from this horror they’re pretending they didn’t create. Dems are using these people as political footballs in this election season, but show zero interest in discussing the root causes and their role in causing this. Their concern is feigned and will dissipate before the time actually act on it. The Dems and Repubs must both have their feet held to the fire to put a stop to US meddling in Central and South America.

    Earlier this week, from The Atlantic, on these camps:

    “It is right and fit to condemn the Trump administration for its argument and its treatment of children. But it’s wrong to think the problem can be cured with a presidential election. Trump will depart; the problem will not depart with him. This administration is merely the latest one to subject immigrant children to abusive conditions. It’s been 35 years since Jenny Flores was strip-searched in an adult facility. Before Sarah Fabian defended concrete floors and bright lights for President Donald Trump, she defended putting kids in solitary confinement for President Barack Obama.

    “The fault lies not with any one administration or politician, but with the culture: the ICE and CBP culture that encourages the abuse, the culture of the legal apologists who defend it, and our culture—a largely indifferent America that hasn’t done a damn thing about it. This stain on America’s soul will not wash out with an election cycle. It will only change when Americans demand that the government treat the least of us as both the law and our values require—and firmly maintain that demand no matter how we feel about the party in power.”


  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your extremely relevant comments, Laura. You’re absolutely right to highlight how the US has been terrorising Central and South America for decades, and I have to add that the effects of climate change must be adding a new urgency to the refugees’ plight. The most harrowing book I ever read was ‘The Massacre at El Mozote’ by Mark Danner, highlighting the appalling massacre in El Salvador in 1981, by US-trained death squads. And there’s still no justice, as Ray Bonner wrote about for the Atlantic just last month: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/05/immunity-perpetrators-el-mozote-massacre/590089/

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Peter Morris wrote:

    ‘Britain May Not Lock Crying Children In Cages – But Our Detention System Is Far From Perfect’:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Peter. Yes, the UK is also a shameful abuser of the most vulnerable people. As the Huffington Post article – from last July – stated, “The UK operates a vast immigration detention estate. Our detention centres are hidden away in the countryside and next to airports. They are ‘black holes’ where legal, civil and human rights are deliberately placed out of reach for people who come to the UK as immigrants. Over 30,000 people are locked up in prison-like conditions annually, without trial and without time limit on how long they can be held. While child detention has decreased significantly, it continues: 1,649 children, 600 of whom were under 11, were detained here since the government officially ended child detention in 2010.”

  17. Tom says...

    One of these camps isn’t far from my house. I had heard that they were looking for volunteers to help care for these kids. Then I find out more:

    The public wasn’t allowed in.
    Congressional people weren’t allowed in.
    Outside doctors, therapists, social workers, etc. weren’t allowed in.
    It was surrounded by a barb wire fence and 24/7 security.
    Staff that did work there were NOT ALLOWED to touch the kids in any way other than what was necessary.
    Outside pictures of the camp weren’t “officially” allowed to be published. I found out about it when the location was leaked by local media.

    This abuse continues, and the 2020 Democratic candidates are using it as a pre-debate photo op. NOBODY HAS BEEN ARRESTED FOR ENDANGERING THE WELFARE OF KIDS.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s an absolute disgrace, Tom. Thanks for summarising the situation on the ground. It must be quite disturbing to have this kind of inhumanity so close by.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    Thank you for your response and the excellent link, Andy. Yes, it is important that people know the dark history of the 1980s when US-backed state terrorism was enforced by death squads in El Salvador, as this history is repeating itself today throughout Central and South America, with much of this centered in the “Northern Triangle” — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the source countries of the majority of immigrants (asylum seekers) at the US border.
    Understanding the root cause of this mass human migration is integral to any genuine effort to addressing this humanitarian crisis. I will post a few links below for anyone interested in learning more .

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    ‘Ten years since the US-backed coup in Honduras’:

    From the article: Much the same US personnel involved in the 2002 coup against Chavez in Venezuela under George W. Bush were involved in the 2009 coup against Zelaya in Honduras under Barack Obama. And the same strategic policy guides the Trump administration’s present regime change operation against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
    Underlying this clear continuity in Washington’s foreign policy, under both Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is the drive by US imperialism to reverse the decline of its global economic hegemony by military means, particularly in the region that it has so long regarded as its “own backyard.”
    The Honduran working class responded to the 2009 coup with immense heroism. It staged continuous demonstrations and strikes in the teeth of savage repression. This included the arbitrary detention of thousands, the shooting of protesters, the gang rape of women detained at protests and the organization of death squads to assassinate journalists and opponents of the coup regime.
    Washington ignored this savage brutality, and the US corporate media largely passed over it in silence.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    ‘Guatemala and El Salvador discuss amnesty for war criminals’:

    From the article: This shift back to a US policy of backing naked military and fascist rule is being accelerated by the resurgence of the class struggle internationally, paired with economic stagnation in the region and concerns of another financial crisis.
    Moreover, Central America is a social tinderbox. Hundreds of thousands of migrants risk their lives each year and defy Washington’s troops on the border, attacks against the right to asylum and concentration camps, all to escape intolerable poverty and violence in Guatemala and El Salvador, where 80 and 72 percent of the respective workforces scrape by in the informal sector, without social security benefits or job security.
    Trump’s mass deportations and the cutting of US aid to force the local elites to turn these countries into open air prisons can only result in a social explosion.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Dexter Lance wrote:

    Last one.
    ‘Hondurans Ask UN for Help to Stop “State Terrorism” Amid Brutal Crackdown’:

    From the article: In this government, repression is reaching levels similar to those observed in the 1980s, when death squads murdered leaders selectively,” said Luis Sosa, a professor who participated in the march.​​​​​​​

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the links, Laura. Much appreciated.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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