Story at a glance

  • Doctors say the majority of those evaluated met the criteria for at least one mental health condition.
  • The report says the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy meets the United Nation’s legal standard for torture.
  • The study’s authors note trauma suffered by migrants warranted further therapeutic support.

The separation of young children from their parents by immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border constitutes torture, according to a group of physicians who evaluated the psychological effects of asylum-seekers who were divided from their families. 

U.S.-based nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) published a report based on in-depth psychological evaluations of 26 asylum seekers, which included nine children and 17 adults, who were separated for an average of 60-69 days under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" crackdown at the border. 

The report claims most of those evaluated met the criteria for at least one mental health condition, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, likely linked to the trauma of family separation. The group’s medical evaluators noted that the trauma suffered by the parents and children warranted “further intervention and ongoing therapeutic support.”

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PHR followed the United Nations guidelines for assessing and documenting torture, which says it is an act which causes severe physical or mental suffering, done intentionally, for the purpose of coercion, punishment, intimidation, or for discriminatory reason, by a state official or with state consent or acquiescence. 

“U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering, in order to punish, coerce, and intimidate Central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims, in a discriminatory manner,” the report states

“Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are violations of human rights and are prohibited under domestic and international law in any and all circumstances,” it adds.

According to the study, the trauma asylum seekers experienced was also a consequence of exposure to violence while on their journey to the U.S. from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

The study claims forced separation amounted to torture and enforced disappearance, because there was a period where parents did not know where their children were and were unable to make contact with them. 

“As a clinician, nobody was prepared for this to happen on our soil,” the report’s co-author Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser at PHR, told The Guardian. “It is beyond shocking that this could happen in the United States, by Americans, at the instruction and direct intention of U.S. government officials.”

Thousands of migrant children and their parents were separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which was formally implemented in April 2018. The policy ended in June 2018, but it has been reported that the administration separated families both before and after the policy was officially put in place.

Published on Feb 25, 2020