COVID-19 in ICE Detention Facilities

Children advocating for
Children ask for their parents’ safety while they are in ICE facilities during COVID-19. Source: Yahoo Images

On a visit to a private United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Texas, a reporter met with Philip, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to speak about the conditions of ICE facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic. Philip recalled his experience, telling the reporter that ICE does not “pay attention to the rules,” and “agents do not wear masks and do not respect quarantine.” Furthermore, he shared that the agents claim “health isn’t ICE’s responsibility.”

How severe is the risk of COVID-19 in the ICE facilities?

After hearing about the first warnings of COVID-19, Chris Beyrer, MD, Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights, highlighted the potential for catastrophic outbreaks of the virus in America’s jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers. His background in epidemiology and research on infectious diseases in prisons gave him the credibility he needed to make such a grave claim. Additionally, in Wutan, China, where one of the first big outbreaks of COVID-19 was, prisons and jails had all the red flags that worsened the spread of COVID – indoor facilities, crowded populations, and hygiene challenges. This was more alarming to Breyer since he was aware of America’s densely populated facilities and their lack of preparedness in handling a pandemic.

Breyer was approached by a group of lawyers working with five older Latina women in the El Paso ICE facility; the women, in addition to their age, had at least one preexisting condition, such as diabetes and hypertension, putting them at a greater risk of becoming severally ill if they were to contract COVID. The lawyers sent Breyer detailed plans of the facility and housing arrangements, and Breyer’s team concluded that ICE could not protect the five women; they would be at high risk if they were exposed. The case reached a federal court where the judge ordered the release of all five women, who fortunately had family in the U.S., so they could go home. The judge’s ruling cited the irrefutable scientific evidence and explicitly said that ICE had failed to prove that they could protect the women from exposure. This precedent itself sets the standard for any other case that emerges during COVID in relation to ICE and the safety of a detention facility amid a pandemic.

Police in ICE facilities ignore COVID-19 guidelines. Source: Yahoo Images.

What else has ICE been doing amid a pandemic?

The sad part is that this unsanitary environment was present prior to the pandemic. In a 2019 inspection of ICE facilities by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report says the DHS found “egregious violations”: moldy bathrooms, food safety issues, lack of hygiene items, and inadequate medical care. If these problems existed pre-pandemic, there is no guarantee that ICE has improved their filthy detentions’ environments. Though the ICE website has posted that it is abiding by CDC guidelines, there is no solid proof of such changes. Instead, ICE’s ongoing deportation flights have not ceased. Since January, over 450 deportation flights to fifteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken place. Eleven of these fifteen countries have confirmed that deportees returned with COVID-19. Since March, ICE has arranged 180 flights from detention centers in hotspot states – Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida – to the Northern Triangle and Mexico. Cases across the region in March jumped from few to thousands, which has been worsened by the deportations of COVID-positive immigrants.

A Call to Action

Amy Zeidan, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University, called for ICE to comply with mandatory CDC guidelines and release as many people as possible from immigrant detention. It has also been suggested to do three things in the meantime to fix the underlying structural issues that have worsened the spread of COVID in detention facilities: “increase COVID-19 screening and mass testing; improve access to medical care outside of ICE facilities for COVID-19 positive detainees; [and] implement systematic investigation into ICE facilities in violation of other guidelines.”

Homeland security is something that everyone cares about. But if America needs to cage immigrants in unsanitary, filthy conditions where they are at a greater risk of dying, then the DHS and ICE need to rethink their stance and their treatment of people who have immigrated to the United States. This pandemic affects everyone, but it can be mitigated with the correct precautions. People like Philip who witness such malnourishment within ICE facilities do not deserve to be treated with such cruelty.

people
One perspective into an ICE detention facility. Source: Yahoo Images.

Let’s #BreakTheChains

Break the Chains
Source: Human Rights Watch.

“I used to be chained around the waist and one ankle. My waist used to hurt because the chain was so heavy. My leg used to hurt, I would scratch it and cry. I felt relieved when the chain was removed.”

–Rose, Kenya

An estimated 792 million people globally – that is 1 in 10 people, including 1 in 5 children – have a mental health condition. Despite this irrefutable fact, governments spend less than two percent of their health budgets on mental health. The absence of proper mental health support and knowledge of how to cope with a mental health condition has lead to thousands of people being shackled in inhumane conditions.

“People in the neighborhood say that I’m mad [maluca or n’lhanyi]. I was taken to a traditional healing center where they cut my wrists to introduce medicine and another one where a witch doctor made me take baths with chicken blood.”
—Fiera, 42, woman with a psychosocial disability, Maputo, Mozambique, November 2019

This brutal practice is an open secret in many communities, according to Kriti Sharma, the senior disability rights researcher at the Human Rights Watch. Sharma and her team compiled a 56-page report titled “Living in Chains: Shackling People with Psychological Disabilities Worldwide,” shedding light on the conditions in which people with mental disabilities are bound by families in their own homes or in overcrowded and unsanitary institutions against their will. This is due to the widespread stigma and taboo of mental health issues within governments and health institutions in several countries. In state-run, private, traditional, and religious institutional “healing centers,” people with mental health conditions are often forced to fast, take medications or herbal concoctions, and face physical and sexual violence.

Afghan
“A mentally ill patient is chained in a cell at Mia Ali Saeb Shrine in Samar Khel, Afghanistan on Nov 12, 2008. Patients, usually brought here by family members, are only given daily rations of bread, black pepper and water, and are kept in their cells for 40 days. With mental illness widely misunderstood, many Afghans believe God will cure the patients with such treatment.” Source: Yahoo Images.

The Human Rights Watch’s study of 110 countries unveiled evidence of shackling people with mental health conditions across age groups, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic levels, and urban and rural areas in about 60 countries. Countries that indulge in these types of practices include Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Palestine, Yemen, and several more.

Though a number of countries have started to acknowledge mental health as a real problem, the inhumane act of shackling remains largely out of sight. There is no data or coordinated effort at either international or regional level to eradicate the binding of people who are mentally ill. The act of shackling impacts both the mental and physical health of someone who is already ill. Some effects include post-traumatic stress, malnutrition, infections, nerve damage, and cardiovascular problems, not to mention the loss of dignity. The #BreakTheChains Movement is an organization devoted to bringing awareness of shackling to nations and increasing access and awareness of mental health services in countries where shackling is a common problem. The movement has been successful in Indonesia where its country-wide interviews and advocacy led the government of Indonesia to deepen its commitment to #BreakTheChains. Over 48 million households in Indonesia now have access to community-based mental health services.

Laymen can also assist the movement by following two easy steps: sign the pledge, and share the movement on social media to promote awareness. It is time to acknowledge that mental health is a real issue that affects millions of people, and shackling and ignoring the issue will not resolve any issues, nor will it reduce the stigma associated with mental health. If we, as global citizens, have learned anything from this pandemic, it is how deathly and dangerous the invisibility of a disease is. Mental health is invisible like COVID-19, but there are always symptoms. Make an effort to educate yourself, and take the opportunity to check in on people by simply asking how someone has been. It really is that simple.

Brief Video about the Chained

Persecution of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria

A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.
A peaceful procession of the IMN for the release of Zakzaky. Source: Yahoo Images.

In Nigeria, the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has been the victim of brutal police force at its ongoing peaceful protests that started in 2015. Recently, the religious group has been categorized as a terrorist group by the Nigerian government, which is an explicit violation of the Muslims’ human rights. On December 12, 2015, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat, were arrested by the Nigerian Army and handed over to the Department of State services following a bloody clash between the soldiers lead by Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai and members of the IMN. The clash occurred in Zaria, Kaduna State, and since the arrest of the leader of the IMN, the followers of the movement have been protesting for the release of their leader. In light of the multiple protests, the Nigerian government issued a ban on the IMN on July 28, 2019, after a protest in the capital, Abuja. The ban was ordered by a Nigerian court which ruled the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.”

What is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria?

Introduced by Sheikh Zakzaky in the 1980s, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a Shia minority sect with close ties to Iran. The sheikh visited Iran and was inspired by its revolutionary movement where the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty was replaced with an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Zakzaky created his own sect in Nigeria known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and has approximately four million followers located in northern Nigeria. They are separate from Boko Haram, an group of Islamic Nigerians who use violent means to spread their influence, something that Zakzaky and IMN members profusely denounce. The Shia IMN, like Boko Haram, sees the secular state as evil and wants an Islamic state based on sharia, or Islamic law.  Their movement calls for the rejection of the Nigerian Constitution and encourages a revolution that focuses on enlightenment.

IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.
IMN members at the Abuja protest. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Abuja Protest

On July 22, 2019, the Human Rights Watch reported that the Nigerian police fired unlawfully at a peaceful protest led by the IMN in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. At around 12:30 p.m., thousands of protestors marched toward the Federal Government Secretariat to register their grievances, particularly regarding the ailing health of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim el Zakzaky and his wife. Mohammad Ibrahim Gamawa, a member of the Resource Forum of the IMN group, reported that as the protestors approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nigerian Police Force opened fire and threw teargas at them. Eleven protestors, Channels Television journalist, Precious Owolabi, and Deputy Commander of Police, Usman Umar died. The government of Nigeria claimed the IMN was responsible for the deaths of the journalist and police officer, hence the ban being issued six days later by a Nigerian court.

This protest was not the first one that resulted in deaths though. Nigerian authorities have used excessive force against the minority group since 2015. On December 12, 2015, the police used brutal force on the IMN’s street procession in Kaduna to allegedly clear the way for the army chief’s convoy, resulting in 347 members dead and several arrested, including the leader and his wife. Rather than holding the police accountable, the Kaduna State prosecutors brought charges against 177 IMN members for the death of Corporal Yakuku Dankaduna – the only military casualty at Kaduna. Several more examples like this exist, but the Shia Muslims have not ceased their nonviolent protests for the release of their leader.

The Ban

Justice Nkeonye Maha issued the ban order on July 26, 2019, declaring the activities of the Shia IMN as “acts of terrorism and illegality.” The order was declared after an ex parte hearing, the application for which was filed barely 72 hours after the Abuja protest by the Attorney General. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria was the sole respondent to the application, but it was not represented by a lawyer since this type of hearing is issued without the responding party being made aware of it. In her ruling, Justice Maha ordered the Attorney General of the Federation to publish the order in the official gazette and two national dailies.

How is this a human rights violation?

Anietie Ewang, the Nigerian researcher at the Humans Right Watch, says that the court ruling “threatens the basic human rights of all Nigerians,” and the government should “reverse the ban, which prohibits the religious group’s members from exercising their right to meet and carry out peaceful protest.” Both the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law prescribe the rights to freedom, association, and expression, which the proscription violates. Under international law, no restrictions can be placed on these rights unless it is provided by law, serves a legitimate government purpose within a democratic society, and is necessary for attaining that purpose. Allegations of criminality do not present legitimate grounds to proscribe the activities of a religious group, according to Ewang. She also suggests that the ban may foreshadow a worse security force crackdown on the IMN, having dire human rights implications throughout Nigeria.

Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.
Not just men, but women also protesting the illegal detention of the leader. Source: Yahoo Images.

Why has the IMN been protesting since 2015?

The obvious reason is the arrest of Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat. Upon their arrest, the couple was handed to the Department of State Services (DSS), and they remained in DSS custody for over two years without charge. In April 2018, the Kaduna State Government filed eight counts against the leader and his wife. The charges include killing Corporal Yakuku Dankanuda who died during the December 2015 bloody clash at Zaria. The protestors have not only been vocal about the allegations but also the health of the sheikh and his wife since they also sustained injuries in the Zaria clash.

What has happened since with the case?

As of September 29, 2020, the Kaduna State High Court dismissed a no case submission application submitted by Zakzaky and his spouse. Justice Gideon Kurada said it was premature to rule on the application to quash the charges against the defendants. The case has been adjourned till November 18 and 19, 2020, where the prosecuting counsel will present evidence and continue the trial. The charges are eight counts including culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace.

The frustration of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria is understandable. They are simply asking to practice their religion in a peaceful manner. The clash between Shia and Sunni Muslims is prevalent in other parts of the world as well, but Islam preaches brotherhood and unity. All Muslims are considered a part of the global Ummah, or community. The unjust bloodshed of these people will not resolve any problems, nor will it bring peace to the ongoing conflict in Nigeria. It is time for the human rights of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria be restored and their leader be acquitted.

International Day of Rural Women: Honoring Their Sacrifices during COVID-19

UN Logo.
UN Logo for Rural Women’s Day, 2020. Source: Yahoo Images

The United Nations has designated October 15th as the International Day of Rural Women. This year, the theme is “Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19.” The reason behind this theme is because of the health and human rights risks that are deemed risks for rural women in light of this pandemic. Rural women hold a crucial role in the fields of agriculture, food security, and nutrition, while simultaneously battling struggles in their daily lives, such as restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes. Since the coronavirus has emerged, women are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines, and vaccines. Despite all these difficulties, rural women like 45-year-old Yan Shenglian of China’s Qinghai Province have been at the front lines, responding to the pandemic while their domestic work increased dramatically due to lockdowns.

Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.
Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.

Yan Shenglian’s Story

Yan Shenglian is one of 28,000 women who have served as medical workers in the province deemed as hardest-hit by the pandemic – Hubei Province. These women have been dubbed “roses in the battlefield.” Shenglian joined her village COVID-19 management team where she ensured that anyone entering or exiting the village got their body temperature checked and had their vehicle information recorded. A few years ago, perhaps Shenglian would not have been able to serve in the capacity she does currently due to a belief that participating in public affairs was a man’s job. But after attending a workshop brought by the United Nations Women, she and several women in her village learned a lifelong skill of raising pigs organically, ensuring food security in the village, even during the pandemic.

Shenglian’s story is just one village among millions in rural communities around the world. Rural women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, yet they face a great deal of discrimination in regards to land and livestock ownership, equal pay, and access to credit and financial services. These women are responsible for entire households and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work, while reaping minimal, if any, benefits. In rural areas, the gender pay gap is as high as 40%, leaving women with little to no pay and giving financial authority to men. If rural women had equal access to agricultural assets, education, and markets, agricultural production could increase to the extent that the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100-150 million.

Rural Women Stuck with the Worst of COVID-19

Due to these inequalities, rural women bear the brunt of the impacts of COVID-19. The mandated border closures and lockdowns are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems. Although this generally affects rural men, women face disadvantages that make it harder for them to recover, including a lack of agricultural assets. Additionally, rural women do not have access to digital platforms to disseminate information about the pandemic or available support. In South Africa and Asia, the majority of 393 million women who lack access to mobile phones and internet connections consist of poor rural women; they rely on person-to-person networks for information.

Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.
Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

Women’s access to technology and digital financial services being limited is not only detrimental to them but to society. Without this access, rural women are not able to be informed on targeted solutions to problems presented by COVID-19, nor are they able to connect with the world in general. Educating women in technology and in services that they need to know, such as how to save money, take a loan, generate income, and manage their livelihoods in general, is essential in progressing rural women’s roles in society. Shenglian was able to gain skills training and received advice from professionals, allowing her to have an established livelihood. There needs to be more Shenglians among the international community of rural women, which consists of a quarter of the global population. These initiatives will be brought about only through policy. And true reform will only benefit the economy and livelihoods of these women and the villages in which they reside.