The United States Treats Migrants Worse Than Prisoners of War
Immigrant detainees regularly face conditions that would violate the Geneva Conventions.
Today, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers have custody of approximately 54,000 refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. An additional 20,000 are being held in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, with 11,000 more children held by the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s a higher number of detainees than there were U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) in the Gulf War, Vietnam War, Korean War, and the Pacific Front of World War II combined.
Detained migrants should certainly be treated—at a bare minimum—no worse than international law requires prisoners of war to be treated. While there are certainly many cases of mistreatment of POWs by the United States as well as other international actors, the Geneva Conventions outline an ideal for POW treatment. The United States agreed to abide by these guidelines when it ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1955.
How can immigrants possibly deserve treatment any poorer than that of an actual, self-declared enemy of the United States? After all, captured soldiers of enemy forces may have actually killed Americans. On the other hand, these immigrants have merely crossed a border, often to escape calamity and violence in their home countries. Moreover, despite the rhetoric of many in the Trump administration, undocumented immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
Yet in immigrant detention centers, migrants can face a number of conditions that, had POWs been subject to them, would have been clear violations of the Geneva Conventions.
The most obvious and perhaps most tragic example is the deaths that have occurred in detention centers. Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in early 2017, approximately 26 people have died in the centers—seven of whom were children. More have died soon after leaving the centers. Unsurprisingly, any conditions that lead to the death or serious injury of a POW are outlawed under the Geneva Conventions. Article 13 of the third Geneva Convention states that, “prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach.”
A number of dire complaints about health conditions at detention centers have surfaced in recent months. For example, estimates suggest that there are between 3,000 and 6,000 detainees needing mental health treatment. In several detention cells that federal inspectors visited in 2018, they found nooses made from bed sheets. Yet resources for dealing with the mental health crisis inside these facilities don’t exist: A 2016 report found that just 21 of 230 ICE detention centers examined had in-person mental health services available.
The Geneva Conventions would have the United States do better; they promise POWs “free of charge … medical attention required by their state of health” (Convention III, Article 15), as well as some specific protections related to mental illness.
Moreover, the third Geneva Convention encourages activities that are helpful for detainees’ mental health, such as “the practice of intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits, sports and games” (Article 38). While there used to be services like English classes and recreational programming for unaccompanied minors, the Trump administration ended that policy and has refused to let private organizations or individuals volunteer to fill the gap.
There are also reports of detention centers that don’t meet the Geneva Conventions’ standards for hygiene and health. Particularly appalling are stories about lack of access to basic sanitation supplies: In some facilities, babies are being fed with unwashed bottles; there are no diapers, soap, or toothpaste. Showers are unavailable or too few, as are laundry facilities and clean changes of clothes. Detainees can’t receive vital supplies from outside donations, either, as the Trump administration has placed severe restrictions on aid that would violate Article 72 of the third Geneva Convention if they were applied to POWs.
According to Article 29 of the third Geneva Convention, POWs are specifically guaranteed “baths and showers … sufficient water and soap for their personal toilet and for washing their personal laundry; the necessary installations, facilities and time” for those purposes. Yet the Trump administration has specifically said that it is under no obligation to provide supplies such as soap to migrant detainees.
Detainees have also said they were denied vital medications, and unsanitary conditions in some detention facilities have contributed to serious outbreaks of disease such as flu, scabies, chicken pox, and lice. In part, this is because—while international law requires routine medical inspections to be held “at least once a month” in POW camps (Convention III, Article 31)—some detention facilities have improper or no medical screenings, meaning individuals with contagious diseases end up in crowded, close quarters.
The prevalence of disease is related to the persistent and pernicious problem of overcrowding that has resulted from the Trump administration’s aggressive deportation policies. Some facilities are so overcrowded that detainees are forced to remain standing 24/7. When there is enough space for detainees to sleep, they sometimes must do so on concrete floors, covered only by thin sheets of plastic and aluminum called “Mylar space blankets.” If the detainees were foreign soldiers instead of civilians, they would be entitled to beds and blankets and 90 square feet of net living area, based on requirements under Article 25 of the third Geneva Convention.
Insufficient food rations have further contributed to the health crisis. Detainees have been served spoiled food and meals that violate their religious beliefs. Not only do the Geneva Conventions guarantee POWs sufficient food for “good health and to prevent loss of weight or the development of nutritional deficiencies,” but, according to Article 26 of the third convention, those rations are also supposed to take into account “the habitual diet” of detainees—which should include any religious dietary restrictions. Given that the United States has agreed to respect the religious beliefs of enemy soldiers, why can’t it afford the same fundamental rights to, say, harmless migrant children?
These health and safety problems have been likened to torture. A pediatrician who interviewed 39 children in the largest detention center in the United States compared the centers to “torture facilities” because of “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.” The executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation said last year that, “the treatment of [detained] children amounts to torture.” Since then, many more reports of mistreatment have surfaced.
While detainees face extreme cold and sleep deprivation, the third Geneva Convention guarantees POWs that their facilities will be “protected from dampness and adequately heated and lighted” (Article 25). Moreover, the cold temperatures and sleep deprivation are similar to inmate conditions at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Several cases of alleged sexual assault—including of children at detention facilities—have arisen. Besides its obvious immorality, rape is considered a form of torture by international law, and the Geneva Conventions offer several protections against it. The fourth Convention specifically protects women “against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.”
Torture is specifically prohibited by Article 17 of the third convention, which also states that POWs “may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” Yet a report by the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants last year showed that the treatment of civilians in some detention facilities does not meet the standards the United States has agreed to extend to captured members of enemy militaries.
The report documents at least 800 complaints of abuse and discrimination. For example, Muslims have been prevented from praying, and gay men have reportedly been refused necessary medical treatment. Evidence of online hate speech by immigration officials has also emerged in spades.
It’s clear that current conditions of detainees held by U.S. immigration authorities are unquestionably inhumane. Many detention centers are treating migrants—most of whom are simply seeking peaceful asylum away from the violence of their home countries, and many of whom are innocent children—significantly worse than how the Geneva Conventions state that true enemies of the United States should be treated.
The Geneva Conventions outline an alternative vision of humane detention, where detainees are all afforded appropriate diet, clothing, space, health services, and protections against abuse. It’s morally necessary that the United States change current policies around detention to meet these basic standards.
The Geneva Conventions have one more aspect that the Trump administration could look to for advice, as well. Article 21 of the third convention explains that POWs “may be partially or wholly released on parole or promise” and that “such measures shall be taken particularly in cases where this may contribute to the improvement of their state of health.” Given the current health conditions in many U.S.-run migrant detention centers, Trump should consider this option. Indeed, he could conditionally release migrants under supervision while remaining in accordance with U.S. laws.
If U.S. policy on detained migrants doesn’t change—and soon—it will surely harm America’s policies, interests, and image. How can the United States protest foreign human rights abuse if it commits such abuses on its own soil? The precedent set by U.S. detention policies is dangerous. If the United States continues to sanction the morally reprehensible behavior going on in immigration detention facilities, it will get harder and harder to keep safe American soldiers and civilians who have been detained abroad.
Lauren Sukin is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University.