This article was written for the Andersonstown News before we discovered the horror of the fate of 23 month old Angie Valeria and her father Oscar Alberto Martínez who were found floating in the Rio Grande.
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet we know that children’s lives are not valued or cherished at home or internationally.
We all watch sporadic reports from Yemen, with haunting footage of children dying for the want of food, staring at us, staring without hope or expectation asking only one question. Why?
In Nigeria we witnessed the systematic abduction of children by Boko Haram, with some returning years later with their own children, having been raped and forced into pregnancy, some as young as 12 and 13 years. Their experience only highlighted in the context of the Western World’s concern at the international growth of Daesh.
But with western eyes, these children’s lives are presented as distant and somehow unfamiliar. As though cultural differences in some way explains the habitual permissibility of horror.
However, when we see children treated with barbarity in places we recognise do we react in a different way?
In a courthouse in San Francisco last week the legal representative for the Unites States Justice Department justified the detainment of immigrant children, separated from their parents, who are kept in overcrowded concrete cells, with only aluminium blankets to cover them on concrete floors. Sarah Fabian went on to shock the judges hearing the case by explaining how her department do not view the requirement for “safe and sanitary” conditions for detainees as including toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo or soap. She justified the sleep deprivation of these children and their lack of access to bathrooms. The children who inevitably soil themselves have no access to washing facilities. There are reports of lice infestations. Further reports from these detention centres by independent observers include how eight year olds are providing care to three year olds as no other care is available. This is happening right now in the land of the free and the brave.
The challenge to the conditions of immigrant children held in detention is in the context of previous rulings where the conditions for those seeking refuge were challenged under the tenure of Ronald Reagan, under Bill Clinton and under Barack Obama. Detaining children in unsafe and unsanitary conditions is not new. The extremes of what is happening now are in a disturbing policy context that is decades old.
What is new is the extreme rhetoric surrounding immigration in the United States, which has meant that previously outrageous conditions have become barbaric. Donald Trump as President has presented the issue of immigration as a new crisis, when it is no such thing. He has created a narrative of illegal immigration of one of criminal elements seeking to destroy America, which is of course ludicrous. He has distorted fact from truth so much that he makes the issues of immigration, residency and asylum almost impossible to disaggregate. In such an environment abuse of power where children are its victims is inevitable. When the policies of past Presidents were so heartless the arguments over whether it is “safe” or “sanitary” to share one nit comb amongst 25 children become legitimate.
In the southern states of America children from Latin America have been so “othered” and criminalised that the pictures of 25 children on a squalid floor covered in tin foil for bedding has become the right thing to do.
Do International Human Rights Conventions hold so little value?