COVID-19 is threatening the lives of migrant children held in US custody

refugees covid

A young Warao indigenous refugee from Venezuela washes her hands after an educational session on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, given by UNHCR and a partner NGO, Fraternidade, at a shelter in Boa Vista, in northern Brazil. © UNHCR/Allana Ferreira

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sahana Kribakaran, MD/PhD Student, Yale University & Dylan Gee, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Yale University

  • COVID-19 could be devastating for migrant children held in US detention centres.
  • The pandemic’s impacts pose risks to migrant children’s mental and physical health.
  • Here are 6 ways the government should act to protect vulnerable migrant youth.

Unlike many illnesses, it has been widely noted that children appear to be at lower risk of the acute physiological impacts of COVID-19 than adults. However, migrant children detained in the US will face devastating outcomes if the federal government does not take immediate action. There are nearly 7,000 children in detention centres and shelters across the US, and more than 36 children held under US custody in the Chicago area alone have tested positive for COVID-19.

While much of the world continues to adjust to the realities of social distancing, practicing the public health recommendations issued by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a privilege not granted to detained migrant youth. Easy access to these recommendations is itself a privilege. Children are being detained in close quarters with limited to no access to basic sanitation instructions in their native language or to soap, water, or hand sanitizer. Shortages of protective equipment have precluded facility workers and guards from taking appropriate precautions, further contributing to the risk of the virus spreading within detention centres.


Threats to physical health are further exacerbated by myriad critical issues. The dearth of medical resources and services for migrant youth imprisoned in US detention centres means it is very possible that they will lack necessary medical attention in the event that they do fall ill to the coronavirus. At least seven children have died while under US custody from complications of infections like the flu and other illnesses. The current administration must release children from detention immediately in a manner that is thoughtfully planned to prevent further deaths.

It is not only the physical health of children that is under attack, but also their mental health. Children living in detention centres and shelters face heightened fear and stress on a daily basis, and many have already faced major traumas in life. The gruesome experience of separation from caregivers has been a reality for many, and hundreds of children have taken solo journeys to arrive in the US. Caregivers serve a central role in regulating children’s stress and anxiety by modulating the neural circuit that controls fear and the effects of trauma on children’s mental health. Major stressors, such as the pandemic and family separation, can have profound impacts on the long-term development of this neurobiological system. Without the essential support of caregivers, migrant children who have already faced significant trauma are at heightened risk of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The lack of developmentally-appropriate and reliable information about COVID-19 and appropriate precautions will only exacerbate this risk.

Individuals who have contracted COVID-19 in detention centres are being placed in isolation or quarantine to prevent the spread of illness. Isolation in detention centres may not only mean physical isolation, but also complete social isolation. This type of confinement of any human being is a form of torture. If children continue to be detained during the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be placed in social and physical isolation to prevent the spread of the illness. To inflict such violence on children will further endanger their mental health and lives.

Deportation not only forces migrant children to return to the countries they left to seek safety, but inevitably heightens the risk for the contraction and spread of the coronavirus. Yet the US government is actively deporting unaccompanied migrant youth, which violates the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorization Act. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also been conducting raids while using critical personal protective equipment that is running low among healthcare workers nationwide. Moreover, these sudden deportations cause further toxic stress that will have long-term impacts on children’s mental and physical well-being.

We call on the US government to take the following six immediate actions to stop the violence against migrant children and families and to protect them from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. The current administration must immediately release all migrants, including children and families, detained in US custody to safe and sanitary housing.

2. Children and family members who are released must be provided with the necessary resources to adequately practice public health measures, in order to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.

3. Children and families who are released must receive federal aid to sustain themselves during the economic downfall that is impacting millions of families across the country.

4. Every person, regardless of their immigration status and health insurance, must receive immediate necessary medical attention following their release from custody.

5. For the migrant children who continue to face the impact of family separation in the middle of this pandemic, immediate reunification is necessary in a manner consistent with CDC guidelines that minimizes risks to the child.

6. The administration cannot continue to cite this global crisis as a reason for deporting children and their families. Deportation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, must be halted immediately; it directly contravenes federal law and puts the lives of thousands of migrant children at risk.

Though many children across the US face a lower risk of acute illness related to COVID-19 than the older members of our society, migrant youth face a devastating reality. It is far past time to act.

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