More than 4,300 unaccompanied children who crossed the US-Mexico border are being held at a makeshift detention center in the US state of Texas under dangerous and distressing conditions.
According to reports, the desperate children, aged 13 to 17, coming from Mexico have been languishing there for weeks without being allowed to speak to a caseworker who can assist them.
The detention center for unaccompanied migrant children was put up by the US Department of Health and Human Services on the Army base in El Paso city nine weeks ago.
Representatives, child advocates, federal and contract workers inside the facility have claimed that the site is being poorly managed and children are suffering.
Those visiting the site have spoken of enormous size of the tents, ineffective oversight of a large number of subcontractors and vendors, and the slow pace of case management for the children.
“When I went into the boys’ tent, there are literally hundreds of boys in these very low-to-the-ground bunk beds,” a representative from Texas, Veronica Escobar, was quoted saying by El Paso Times.
“I think having that many people all together in one space is risky to their health and their safety. I think it makes supervision and oversight nearly impossible,” she said.
“My other area of deep concern,” she added, “is the fact that we have kids who have been in that facility for a significant period of time. I met children who had been there for over 40 days. That is absolutely unacceptable, and it is deeply alarming.”
According to the newspaper report, the children spend most of their days in the warehouse-sized tents, girls and boys in separate quarters.
“It’s like the Walking Dead,” a former youth care worker is quoted saying in the report. “White tents as far as you can see. The security department, the medical tent, the cafeteria.”
The children sleep on “metal beds with two layers of ― you know that green stuff you use to put on your fence for privacy? It’s like that tied around the bars. They don’t have a mattress. It’s mesh wrapped around the poles. The (children) literally have no space.”
Among the 11 dormitory tents, the former youth care worker said, are six known among coworkers as “COVID City,” for children who have tested positive for the virus. US Department of Health and Human Services calls the area “Healing Hill”.
There are about 300 children in “medical isolation” at the site as of Wednesday, according to the report quoting the US Department of Health and Human Services, “almost all COVID cases”.
There have been serious concerns about children's mental health, given the occasional communication between children and their caseworkers.
The number of children arriving at the southwest border of the country without a parent or legal guardian surged earlier this year, from less than 5,000 children per month in December to more than 18,700 children in March.
Vast detention sites
There is a vast network of detention sites across the US, holding more than 20,000 migrant children, who have complained of cold temperatures, sickness, neglect, lice and filth, among other issues.
President Joe Biden had opened the border to unaccompanied children seeking asylum, relaxing former President Trump's policy of returning migrants due to Covid-19 crisis.
However, the Biden administration has come under fire for failing to provide proper facilities with adequate facilities to the migrant children, exposing them to various dangers.
In late March, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released disturbing images of cramped conditions at one particular facility in Donna, Texas. The facility was designed to house 250 people but took more than 4,000 people.
Most of them are teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, though some have been reported to be as young as six.
Persecution, gang violence, and poverty are the reasons parents have seen sending them to seek refuge in the US, though they remain vulnerable to exploitation and sexual abuse along the way.
Sexual abuse and exploitation
Migrant children held at a Texas migrant detention facility have been subjected to sexual abuse, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said recently, blaming President Joe Biden for the deepening humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico.
Abbott said children held at a facility in the city of San Antonio were being “sexually assaulted”, saying the reports about the same were “very credible.”
“Complaints that were sent to these state agencies include the following four things: children at this facility are being sexually assaulted; second, there are not enough staff to safely supervise the children at this facility; third, some children at this facility are not eating throughout the day; and fourth, children with COVID are not being physically separated from children without COVID,” he said.
Abbott blamed President Biden’s “open border policy” for the crisis at the border, calling for him “to shut down the facility immediately.”
“These problems are a byproduct of President Biden’s open border policies and the lack of planning for the fallout” of those policies, the governor said.