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U.N. Human Rights Office Says It's Concerned About Treatment Of Migrants In The U.S.


The latest reaction to the migrant detention crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border comes from the United Nations, in particular, how children are treated. The Human Rights Office at the U.N. has a new statement that says the detention of migrant children, quote, "may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law."

Here to speak with us is Georgette Gagnon. She's the director of field operations for the U.N. Human Rights Office. Thank you for joining us.


CORNISH: Can you begin with which conditions specifically at these U.S. detention centers most concerns the Human Rights Office?

GAGNON: The conditions include children being separated from their families and being held in detention, period. That is something that the office is of the view should never happen. As we say in the statement, children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families.

CORNISH: Now, as far as I know, you and your staff have not been able to get into these detention centers yourselves. Is that correct? And if so, do you have plans to do so?

GAGNON: Yes, we have not been into the detention centers ourselves. Several colleagues from other U.N. human rights bodies, particularly the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has asked for access to detention centers. The special rapporteur has made many requests over the last year for access.

CORNISH: And so far, have those gone unanswered from the Trump administration?

GAGNON: As far as we understand, the special rapporteur has sent 10 communications to the U.S., and he has not received an answer.

CORNISH: Now, what is the U.N. able to do then to address this situation?

GAGNON: Well, our approach, our obligation, our responsibility is to highlight the situation of the children in the centers and urge the government, in particular, the authorities who are responsible for addressing the situation. And we've called on the authorities to find noncustodial alternatives for migrant and refugee children and adults. That is the obligation under international human rights law, and it is our obligation to really highlight this and to call on the authorities to act because the situation is so appalling.

CORNISH: How unusual is all of this - for the U.N. to be looking on U.S. soil for these kinds of violations?

GAGNON: Well, it's our job to look at violations wherever they occur by whichever state or whichever private actor is committing or alleged to have committed international human rights violations.

CORNISH: Given that the U.S. is not cooperating so far, does that undermine any of the work that the U.S. might be doing in other areas of the world with human rights folks at U.N.?

GAGNON: Well, it's always, of course, better for countries to - who call on other countries to abide by their international human rights obligations to themselves meet their international human rights obligations. We would ask all countries to do that.

CORNISH: Georgette Gagnon, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GAGNON: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Gagnon is the director of field operations with the U.N. Human Rights Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.