UNITED STATES: U.S. government workers feared strong retaliation for raising concerns last year about the insensitive treatment of unaccompanied migrant children on a Texas military base, where children have been held amid record arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, as per a watchdog report published on Tuesday.
Two U.S. government employees said they faced backlash after sounding the alarms about the ill-treatment of migrant children at Fort Bliss, which has been used for emergency housing purposes since March 2021, according to the report issued by the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general’s office.
These alleged acts of retaliation, which included demotion and removal from crucial assignments, may have caused a broader “whistleblower chilling”, the inspector general’s office said, “effectively scaring staff into withholding any complaints or reports of wrongdoing.”
One of the whistleblowers cited in Tuesday’s report included a staff member working with HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) leadership. ORR oversees the care and custody of unaccompanied minors.
Another unnamed staffer was allegedly demoted and transferred after bringing into attention the mistreatment of children at the base and the removal of certain safety checks in the program to release children to sponsors.
However, an HHS official spoke to Reuters regarding the gravity of the issue and said that the agency would never malign or retaliate against someone for raising a pertinent safety issue concerning children.
The HHS official clarified that the situation at Fort Bliss in the spring of 2021 was problematic and concerning, but that conditions now are “night and day” compared to then.
There are currently 589 children at the base, the official said, and children stay, on average, for 13 days before being released to parents or their sponsors.
The number of children crossing the border with Mexico saw a sharp rise in 2021, posing several logistical, operational and humanitarian challenges for U.S. President Joe Biden, who had long campaigned for the rights of migrant communities, along with his fellow VP Kamala Harris.
To alleviate the situation of overcrowding in border stations, HHS established several emergency housing shelters that would accommodate unaccompanied children until they could be reunited with their parents or placed with sponsors in the United States.
The conditions of children sent to these emergency shelters are appalling. Many centres, including Fort Bliss, have been described with cramped living conditions, spoiled food, lack of clean clothes and unchecked struggles with depression, according to child testimonials filed in court in June 2021.