Senate probe: Should governments look after migrant children?

A Senate probe takes a US agency to task over poor handling of its charge to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

Petros Giannakouris/AP
IOC President Thomas Bach, chats with children during his visit at a refugee camp in Athens on Thursday. Bach says the torch relay for this year's Olympics will include a stop at a refugee camp in Athens, as nations make strides in caring for migrant children.

The children who flee dangerous conditions in their home countries received a spotlight in two countries on Thursday.

In the United States, migrant children were the focus of a Senate investigation led by Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, The Associated Press reported. Senator Portman discovered a problem in his own home state that he found unacceptable – six Guatemalan children, placed by a government agency with sponsors who forced them under threat of death to work 12-hour days on egg farms.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has placed about 90,000 unaccompanied migrant children in new homes in the US, but the agency became overwhelmed with the surge of Central Americans arriving at the border in the summer of 2014, Richard Cowan reported for Reuters. The Senate panel released a report on their findings, which showed HHS had not visited the homes of the Guatemalan children – or 95 percent of their peers – for follow-up checks.

"Perhaps the most troubling, unanswered question is this: how many other cases are there like the Marion trafficking case?” Mr. Portman asked, according to the AP. “The answer is HHS doesn’t know."

The response of Western nations to the growing migrant flow and refugee crisis has been scrambled at times, and the political wrangling continues over how many and how quickly migrants fleeing violence can safely enter Western countries. As the United Nations announced a record-high 59.5 million displaced people and rising, governments tried to balance the seemingly limitless need with limited resources by looking first to those who most easily arouse compassion – unaccompanied children.

Congress determined that the American government was responsible for inadvertently sending children into harm's way, having placed the very children who fled violence at home into situations where trafficking occurred, the AP reported. Senators of both parties expressed disgust with the agency's procedures for placing unaccompanied minors in new homes, noting the HHS had not used all of its allotted funding. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said the Senate probe demonstrated the seriousness of America's no-tolerance policy for human trafficking.

“The bottom line is when a child is admitted into our country, the United States of America should be an example for the world of how we care for those children,” Senator McCaskill said during the hearing, according to the AP.

The congressional report established accountability, and six people have been charged with human trafficking already, Reuters reported. HHS has also responded to pressure by instituting new procedures, amid calls for background checks on potential sponsors and a follow-up database on the migrant children's new homes.

Across the pond, the British government announced a plan to care for the vulnerable in its own migrant crisis. Britain plans to admit some of the 26,000 migrant children who become separated from their families while traveling to Europe, the BBC reported.

The UK has established a plan to reunite families of migrants by admitting children who already have family ties. The UK will also take in a promised 20,000 refugees by 2020 directly from the Middle East and help migrant children traveling alone in Europe by providing $10 million for shelter, counseling, and a database to help reunite families.

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