First Person

Toddlers behind bars? Tell the US—this is NEVER acceptable

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Syrian children near Amman, Jordan, leave a tent that serves as their school in a community of refugee families that have fled violence. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam Syrian children near Amman, Jordan, leave a tent that serves as their school in a community of refugee families that have fled violence. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Refugee and migrant children have rights, and we should not lock them up

Jonathan Scanlon is Oxfam’s Senior Alliances Advisor, and is based in Seattle

Hi, I’m Jon Scanlon and I’m the sole Oxfam staffer in the Pacific Northwest. (Okay, Oxfam Canada has a team in Vancouver, but south of the border it’s just me.)

I love where I live and helping my colleagues to spread the word on our work here in Cascadia. But, sometimes it’s nice to visit home. I grew up in western Massachusetts, so one of the things I enjoy about working for a Boston-based organization is that when I visit HQ, I also get to see family.

Over the weekend I was playing trucks with my awesome four-year-old nephew. We had a great time. Like I did when I was his age, my nephew likes to bring out all of his cars and trucks and line them up. Its fun being that age and looking over your little empire.

So while I had fun hanging out with my nephew, I also helped my colleagues sign off on this statement concerning the detainment of children. I gotta admit, I was hurt, and frankly pissed off at what my government is doing.

Here’s a quick poll for you: When is it okay to detain (basically, jail) children based on their migration status?

  1. Never
  2. Seldom
  3. Always

After spending an afternoon with my nephew during which he graciously assembled a dinner for me comprised of cookies, peanut butter crackers, and Nutella, I wanted to shout: “NEVER!” It is never okay to detain children because a government decides they’re on the wrong side of a border. But this is what our government does, and wants to continue to do.

It is well documented that detention centers are horrible places to be. In fact, last year the US Commission on Civil Rights found that detention centers violate constitutional rights and run counter to US government policy. Closer to where I live, a hunger strike by Paulino Ruiz and members of Colectivo de Detenidos brought to light the unacceptable conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Right now in New York, diplomats are negotiating the text of a statement on refugees and migration. Some governments want to use the text to state that detention is “never” in the best interests of children. Sounds right to me. I can’t think of a situation in which locking up a toddler is good for the child. Instead of saying “never,” our government wants to say that detention is “seldom” in the best interests of children.

Now, why would they want to do that?   Maybe our government wants to continue to be able to practice child detention on our southern border. This is a practice that the federal government has defended in court. There are better alternatives to child and family detention and to the language that our diplomats are pushing in New York.

I started thinking about a potential situation: what if I was travelling with my family and my nephew and we made a mistake and overstayed a visa abroad? We could be in trouble. Maybe we would be detained. Who knows what the conditions would be like? Hopefully we’d be able to rely on a US embassy to help us out. But, that embassy is part of the same agency – the State Department – that is signaling to the world that it’s okay to detain children. I once worked at the State Department and I’d like to think that some of my friends who have served as consular officers would find it appalling that our government would say that it’s fine to jail American children abroad.

I find it appalling too. And I hope that every parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle does, including President Obama and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. Negotiations start again in New York this week. I hope they hear us.

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