Global Responses to President Trump’s Family Separation via “Zero-Tolerance” Detention Policy

Children in cages. Children under five crying alone. Anguished parents. As these images have assaulted Americans’ sensibilities in recent weeks, they have also brought international attention to United States asylum and refugee practices. While many countries, including US allies have their own asylum and refugee policies that have attracted criticism, the recent U.S. policies have generated an exceptionally intense set of global responses, most acutely and fiercely in response to US family separation policies. This rise of powerful international scrutiny comes, not because there is a clear consensus on issues concerning migration and asylum  around the global, but because this US policy triggers a sense that a distinct red-line is being crossed, a drift to casual inhumanity in the regulation of borders that states and international organizations feel compelled to call out. In some sense, this global chorus is reassuring.

It ought to remind Americans (and non-Americans) that certain kinds of practices are simply unacceptable. Not only do they violate core human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the US is one of two non-signatories) but customary international law understandings on the rights of the child binding on all states (including the United States). The concerted international response also stands as a warning to other states, which might take the US position on child separation as a green light for similar behavior, that consequences follow and there are minimal standards of humanity and decency that are expected from all states. These views on the administration’s policies will likely be ignored or derided by the administration itself, but when states succumb to cruel and intolerable policies, there remains a humane global order that will identify and call out the unacceptable and remind us where moral clarity lies.

British Prime Minister Theresa May:

“The pictures of children being held in what appear to be cages are deeply disturbing. This is wrong, this is not something that we agree with.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

“What’s going on in the United States is wrong … I can’t imagine what the families living through this are enduring. Obviously, this is not the way we do things in Canada.”

Benjamin Griveaux, France’s government spokesman:

“We do not share the same model of civilization, clearly we don’t share certain values.”

Pope Francis:

The separation of children from their parents is “contrary to our Catholic values” and “immoral.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein:

“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”

11 United Nations experts (Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples; Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Special Rapporteur on the right to health; Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Chairperson of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice; Special Rapporteur on violence against women; and Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance)::

“This executive order does not address the situation of those children who have already been pulled away from their parents. We call on the Government of the US to release these children from immigration detention and to reunite them with their families based on the best interests of the child, and the rights of the child to liberty and family unity. Detention of children is punitive, severely hampers their development, and in some cases may amount to torture. Children are being used as a deterrent to irregular migration, which is unacceptable.”

Caryl Stern, President and CEO of UNICEF USA:

“Children need to be defined by their age, not their borders. Regardless of immigration status, children are children first and need to be treated as such.”

Photo: A woman who identified herself as Jennifer sits with her son Jaydan at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after recently crossing the U.S., Mexico border on June 21, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. — Spencer Platt/Getty Images. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).