Every child deserves the right to the protection of their basic human rights
In 1959, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention of the Rights of the Child, defining children’s rights to protection, education, health care, shelter, and nutrition. It is the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty; yet the United States remains the only member not to ratify this agreement to protect a child’s basic human rights. We see how this perspective plays out now on our southern border.
Families traveling through dangerous terrain and with little resources to sustain them, arrive at our border seeking relief from the danger that forced them to flee here. Parents and children have shown up recently in increasing numbers; yet the resulting crisis was not met by this administration with an effort to provide adequate shelter and care. Instead, we find increasingly alarming conditions in the facilities where they are detained. In direct violation of the 1997 Flores agreement, stories from the few lawyers and doctors allowed in to the tent camps and border stations have trickled out, detailing children living in squalor.
There are more humane and effective alternatives to detention and the “zero tolerance” policy of this administration. Many of the families being separated and detained are seeking asylum, with a legal system already in place to process their claims. There are steps the administration could take to expedite these claims, to move families together more quickly through our legal system and to find resolution.
Children should never suffer abuse and neglect at the hands of adults. If a parent failed to adequately care for their child, the state would remove that child from their custody. But at the border, the basic standards of care seem not to apply. We continue to separate children from their families, to detain them in substandard conditions for prolonged periods of time, and to exacerbate the trauma they experience from fleeing the violence in their countries of origin.
Young children are at a critical point in their growth, with their brains developing and their bodies growing rapidly. Removing a child from their parent is profoundly traumatic and disruptive to that development. Depriving a young body of fresh air or water, toothbrush or soap also disrupts healthy development. And the damage done cannot be undone.
Yet in Maine’s southern city of Portland, we see another way is possible, that communities and people of all backgrounds can come together to offer relief and hope to those in need.
Last month, around 300 asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in the city in just over a week. The sudden influx of migrants presented both a challenge and an opportunity for Maine. As one of the oldest states, we need more young people here who want to work and raise their families, to join our communities and build our economy.
While city officials debate where the funds will come from and how they will be spent to support these families, community members got to work to help. For these new Mainers, the Expo, a local sports arena, was opened to provide temporary shelter. Over $800,000 have been raised in donations, and around 1,200 people have volunteered to help. The existing immigrant community has stepped up to cook meals and translate.
And all of this unfolds while at the southern border, children sleep on concrete with the lights on, eat the same nutritionally deficient meals each day, older children caring for the younger, wondering if they will see their families again. The trauma they experience every moment they are in this kind of care is immeasurable, and profound.
Regardless of borders, background, age or gender, children should be guaranteed adequate treatment for their basic health and well-being. If we advocate for the rights and needs of our own children, in our communities and state, we must do the same for those children who seek refuge at our borders.
The children waiting in substandard facilities at our southern border are in our collective care. And they are counting on us to speak up. We cannot be complicit, and we cannot turn away. It is incumbent upon us all to demand our elected officials visit these detention camps, acknowledge the atrocities happening there, and do something meaningful to end it.
The Maine Children’s Alliance is a public policy, nonprofit improving the lives of Maine children, youth and families through research, collaboration and advocacy. www.mekids.org