National Column: US not alone in detaining children

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by Thomas Walkom

Donald Trump is castigated for separating children from families who have illegally entered the United States – and rightly so.

There is no law that specifically requires the U.S. president to engage in this cruel practice.

But before Canadians indulge in their favourite sport of Trump-bashing, we should keep a few things in mind.

First, Trump is not unique in applying harsh solutions to the problems posed by large-scale movements of migrants. Australia intercepts would-be asylum seekers at sea and delivers them to detention camps in neighbouring Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing.

This hardline policy has been supported by both major parties in Australia, including left-leaning Labour. That’s because it is overwhelmingly popular.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government is in danger of collapsing over the migrant issue. Many Germans argue that Merkel has been too welcoming.

The conservative Christian Social Union, a necessary partner in the coalition, worries that unless it can be seen as taking a harder line against migrants it will lose support to the far right.

Meanwhile, the latest Italian election has put in power an anti-migrant coalition government there. One of its first acts was to turn away a boatload of asylum seekers rescued from the Mediterranean.

Second, the Trumpian practice of separating migrant families and detaining their children is not unheard of. Canada has done both, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Between 2010 and 2014, according to a study by the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, an average of 242 migrant children a year were put into detention. By 2017 that number had dropped to 162.

In November 2017, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale ordered the Canada Border Services Agency to avoid child detention and keep families together “as much as humanly possible.”

Like the U.S. today, Canada faced United Nations criticism in 2012 for its policy of detaining migrant children.

Third, the question of what to do with the children of people entering a country illegally poses a real problem. In the U.S., Barack Obama’s administration set up family detention centres where parents and their children could be housed together while their cases were adjudicated. That worked until a judge ruled that detaining migrant children for any length of time was illegal.

After that, the Obama administration responded by freeing from immigration detention any families with children – often on a simple promise to appear later in court.

It was a humane act. But it was also a signal to would-be illegal entrants that bringing children along might allow them to avoid detention.

The Trumpists saw this as a loophole that needed to be plugged. Their response, which has been typically heavy-handed, is to separate families, put the adults in jail and treat the children like unaccompanied minors – that is like those child migrants who have been smuggled into the U.S. without parents.

While polls show the family separation policy is unpopular generally in the U.S., it does score well with most Republicans.

The grandees of the party, like the Bushes, may not like it. But the rank and file do. Between mid-April and the end of May, almost 2,000 migrant children have been separated from their families.

Trump says the problem could be fixed if Congress passed a law specifically allowing the detention of migrants as family units – thus finessing the legal problem that bedevilled Obama.

In the short run, he is probably right. A return to family detention centres would be more humane than separating parents from their children.

There is, however, a long-run problem that this doesnít address. All over the world, people are on the move in search of a better life. Not everyone in the developed world welcomes their arrival.

But unless conditions improve in places such as Afghanistan, Africa and Central America, they will keep on coming. No Trump can stop them.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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