June 13, 2006

Harvard study blasts treatment of child refugees

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Unaccompanied children fleeing to the
United States to escape persecution often meet a harsh, hostile
reception, slipping through the cracks of a system designed for
adults that compounds their trauma, a Harvard University study
said on Tuesday.

About 8,000 children sought sanctuary in the United States
alone -- arriving with no family or adult guardian -- in 2003,
the most recent year studied. Many had no legal counsel and
were vulnerable to exploitation, according to a report on the

The 218-page report said the children faced risks that
included military recruitment, sexual violence, exploitative

work and physical abuse.

The two-year study of U.S. immigration laws and agencies
said courtrooms often treat unaccompanied child migrants like
adults, or simply assume they arrived with family.

"There is a void in the immigration law because the law was
based on a faulty assumption," Jacqueline Bhabha, a lecturer at
Harvard Law School and co-author of the report, told Reuters.
"A lot of children are not attached when they arrive."

"Far from attracting a compassionate response, children
frequently attract the opposite -- a punitive, harsh, even
vindictive attitude. Children often... are treated worse than
adults, not better."

She said some children arrive with smugglers; others with
siblings or someone from their village. "Our laws do not
reflect the reality," she said.

Most fled Central and South America to escape gangs and
religious or political persecution. About 30 percent were from
Honduras, 26 percent from El Salvador, 20 percent from
Guatemala, 10 percent from Mexico, 3 percent from Brazil and 2
percent from Ecuador, the study said. Another 2 percent were
from China.


The report was part of an international research project in
the United States, Britain and Australia whose findings will be
published his year with an analysis on all the three nations.

Work began work in 2004 with data collected from 14 U.S.
government agencies dealing with unaccompanied and separated
child asylum-seekers. About 70 government and non-government
workers were interviewed, along with dozens of children.

One Salvadoran child, identified as Jose, said he felt as
if he were being treated as a bank robber by U.S. agents when
he arrived in Arizona after crossing the Mexican border.

"They didn't believe me when I said that I was a minor.
They said that I was lying. After I was questioned, I was put
into a truck and taken back to the border. No one asked if I
was afraid to return to Mexico. The trucks just unloaded us (on
the Mexico side) and drove off," he said in the report.

U.S. immigration officials were not available to comment on
Juan's case or on the Harvard study.

Bhabha said cases like Juan's highlight one concern: that
immigration authorities often fail to take children as
seriously as adults who seek sanctuary.

"Often they assume children are not political, children are
innocent, are seen as benign, that children could not be
targeted or be at risk," she said. "There are many decisions
that reflect that approach, that say 'sure you are on your own,
but why don't you just go back."'

The report urges U.S. authorities to recognize legitimate
claims by child asylum-seekers and conduct more thorough
investigations so that those whose claims are not legitimate
are sent home to avoid an "open door" immigration policy.