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RIGHTS-US: Ill Migrants Left to Languish Behind Bars

Ben Case

NEW YORK, Mar 18 2009 (IPS) - Clinical staff at U.S. immigration detention centres systematically abuse detainees in their charge, according to two reports by Human Rights Watch and the Florida Immigration Advocacy Centre (FIAC) that describe the medical care system in these facilities as “dangerously inadequate”.

The reports, released Tuesday, detail the callous treatment of detainees, especially women, who are in need of medical attention.

“Death rates in detention appear to be worsening,” said FIAC executive director Cheryl Little. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needlessly detains people with severe illnesses and those who pose no harm to U.S. communities.”

The 78-page FIAC report exposes the exceedingly poor healthcare available to people in custody at immigration detention centres as well as the lack of official accountability.

It identifies wide-ranging problems with the medical care provided to detainees, including some as severe as improper care of physically and mentally disabled patients, “cruel and abusive behaviour” by clinic staff, overcrowded and unsanitary facilities and even isolation or transfer of patients as punishment for medical complaints.

According to FIAC, “detainees routinely report being treated as criminals, being accused of faking illnesses, and having painful symptoms ignored.”

The accompanying HRW report, also 78 pages, focuses on the treatment of women in immigration detention.

“Women in detention described violations such as shackling pregnant detainees or failing to follow up on signs of breast and cervical cancer, as well as basic affronts to their dignity,” said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.

The HRW report found that problems in medical services in detention centres are acutely felt by female detainees, and described a long list of grievances including “unwarranted denial of services”, long delays in potentially life-saving services, and unavailability of basic female hygiene supplies.

Both reports were researched through extensive interviews with detainees and staff at detention facilities as well as immigration officials and attorneys, and include many victims’ personal accounts of abuse.

For example, one woman who was forced to take the wrong medication in a California detention facility told researchers: “Immediately, my body started shaking. I felt so cold that I thought I was freezing to death, but at the same time I was sweating… Within minutes, I had a seizure and my body began to shake so violently that I fell off the bed onto the floor.”

But these reports might not even show the worst of it. “Because we went through legal providers, all of the women we spoke to had access to counsel,” Rhoad told IPS. “Eighty percent of detainees have no lawyer, so it is possible they also have even less access to care.”

The HRW report interviewed 48 women in nine detention facilities in Florida, Texas and California because these states have a particularly high concentration of female detainees, but ICE has many immigration detention centres in every state.

“Because immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, these abuses are especially dangerous. They remain largely hidden from public scrutiny or effective oversight,” said Rhoad.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement department was founded in 2003 and is a branch of Homeland Security. The ICE website describes its mission as “protecting national security and upholding public safety by targeting criminal networks and terrorist organizations”.

“ICE has prosecutorial discretion, they say they prioritise criminals, but that is not really the case,” Rhoad told IPS. “The majority of these detainees are out of step with some minor administrative law, they do not have criminal records.”

There were more than 300,000 people in immigration custody in 2008, most of them in state and county jails. The average stay in custody is 38 days, according to the FIAC report, but some detainees are held for months and even years.

“Only independent, external scrutiny of detainees’ medical care will ensure that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE carry out their moral and legal responsibility to provide for the health and safety of detainees entrusted to their care,” the FIAC report says. “Given the dramatic increase in detainees, the need for proper scrutiny of medical care is more critical now than ever.”

The FIAC is a not-for-profit legal organisation that works to protect and promote the human rights of immigrants to the United States.

HRW was formed out of the merging of several groups in 1988 and is a leading non-governmental organisation monitoring compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all over the world.

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