Immigrant detention center conditions are ‘inhumane,’ according to UN military standards

Sleep deprivation is banned by the UN and by the Canadian military.

A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children detained at the border — specifically, conditions that make it impossible for children to sleep — is considered inhumane under international military law.

A U.S. Justice Department attorney argued in federal court on Tuesday that the government does not need to provide migrant children in custody with soap, toothbrushes, or beds to fulfill the “safe and sanitary” conditions requirement laid out in a consent decree. The practice of sleep deprivation is barred when interrogating prisoners of war, according to international military law.

In viral videos of the court hearing, the three-judge Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel was left flabbergasted after Justice Department Attorney Sarah Fabian defended the Trump administration’s practice of forcing children to sleep in cold temperatures on cement floors with no bed, 24-hours of artificial light, and only an aluminum blanket to keep them warm.

“But you’re really going to stand up and tell us that being able to sleep is not a question of safe and sanitary conditions?” asked U.S. Circuit Court Judge Marsha Berzon. “You can’t be safe and sanitary or safe as a human being if you can’t sleep.”


Fabian argued that sleep was not mentioned in a 1997 consent decree called the Flores Settlement that forced the government to provide basic human rights for migrant children, such as being placed in safe and sanitary conditions.

Judge William Fletcher told Fabian that it was “obvious enough” that “putting people into a crowded room to sleep on a concrete floor with an aluminum foil blanket on top of them … doesn’t comply with the agreement … No one would argue that this is safe and sanitary.”

While the Trump administration tries to argue that sleep is not essential for being safe and sanitary, Canadian Military law suggests that it is actually an inhumane and illegal interrogation technique. A Canadian Armed Forces interrogation manual cites international humanitarian laws when outlining interrogation techniques that are considered “oppressive.”


The manual states the use of “physical force” and “acts of violence” to compel a detainee to cooperate is prohibited by law. So are “Interrogation tactics that aim to persuade or manipulate a detainee require close consideration. Whether stress, disorientation, and duress techniques (i.e. sleep deprivation, hooding, stress position) constitute some form of physical or mental coercion.”

According to the manual, the United Nations General Assembly’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also considers sleep deprivation as a form of “inhumane treatment” that causes mental and physical suffering and deprives a person “of their liberty” and “dignity.”

The proscribed conduct outlined in Article 7 of the ICCPR must be read in concert with Article 10 which enshrines the following positive obligation: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.155 In this respect, the HRC has explained that Article 10 imposes positive obligations on States parties with respect to persons who are particularly vulnerable because they have been deprived of their liberty. Coercive interrogation techniques including death threats156, solitary confinement157, sleep deprivation, hooding, and shaking, used alone or in combination constitute a violation of Article 7.

And while migrant children are being kept in detention centers that make sleeping impossible, the UN’s Convention Against Torture guidelines say limiting detainees to four hours of sleep every 24 hours for more than 30 days is considered sleep deprivation and a form of “ill treatment,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and Rule of Law.

New reports have emerged that have shed light on the cruel conditions under which infants, young children, and teens have been placed after being detained along the southern border. Young children have been forced to care for babies. Kids are being fed unhealthy meals. Many go weeks without a change of clean clothes or a bath, according to the Associated Press.

Five kids have died under Customs and Border Protection care since last year and the agency’s commissioner, John Sanders, acknowledged in an interview with the AP that the kids in detention are receiving inadequate medical care.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) this week characterized the detention facilities as “concentration camps,” which by definition are “a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”