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USA: ill-treatment of Haitian asylum-seekers is race-based torture - new report

Testimony includes accounts of lack of healthcare in detention, denial of Covid masks, and being bundled onto expulsion flights in shackles 

Trump-era Title 42 policy being widely used to justify summary removals  

‘Our research provides ample evidence that systemic racism is embedded within the US immigration system’ - Erika Guevara Rosas

The US authorities have subjected Haitians seeking asylum to arbitrary detention, and discriminatory and humiliating ill-treatment amounting to race-based torture, said Amnesty International today in a new report.

The 73-page report - ‘They Did Not Treat Us Like People’: Race and Migration-Related Torture and Other Ill-Treatment of Haitians Seeking Safety in the USA - shows that successive US administrations have tried to deter Haitian people from claiming asylum in the USA by intercepting, detaining and removing them, starting in the 1970s and continuing with mass expulsions under the controversial Trump-era Title 42 policy.

Amnesty emphasised that these human rights violations are the latest chapter rooted in a long history of systemic anti-Black discrimination against Haitians.

Amnesty interviewed 24 people in Haiti for its report, all of whom appear to have been expelled under Title 42 between September 2021 and January 2022. None had the opportunity to go through an individual assessment by asylum officers before being sent back to Haiti. According to their testimonies, US officials detained babies as young as nine days old, and in several cases separated them from their parents - violations under international law. The Haitians also said they did not have access to interpreters, legal representation, or information about the place of their detention or the reasons they were being held, which constitutes arbitrary detention.

None of the Haitians interviewed by Amnesty said they were tested for Covid-19 or offered vaccines at any point during their detention or prior to expulsion. Many also noted they were not provided with masks or able to physically distance themselves from others, undermining claims that Title 42 expulsions are designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The ill-treatment the 24 Haitians experienced in US detention facilities - which included a lack of access to sufficient food, healthcare, information, interpreters or lawyers - had a cumulative impact, as they had already suffered a range of human rights violations, including racism, throughout their often arduous journeys to the USA. All 24 said they were returned to Haiti by plane in handcuffs and shackles - treatment that caused them psychological pain due to its association with slavery and criminality. In Amnesty’s assessment, their treatment amounts to torture based on their race and migration status under international human rights law.

Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organisation which has been at the forefront of highlighting the mistreatment of Haitians by the US authorities, said:

“Last September the world watched in horror as photos went viral of a mounted Border Patrol officer using his reins to whip at Mirard Joseph, one of about 15,000 Haitian people seeking protection in Del Rio, Texas. 

“As appalling as the incident was, it was the tip of the iceberg of decades of mistreatment to deter Haitians from seeking safety in the United States. 

“We hope the recommendations in this report will spark a dialogue among the US authorities to dismantle the race-based discrimination and torture that Haitians and other Black migrants often face in the US immigration system.”

Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director, said: 

“One year ago, the Biden administration condemned the shameful scenes of mounted Border Patrol agents violently dispersing Haitian asylum-seekers in Del Rio, Texas. 

“Despite this, the US authorities have continued to restrict their right to seek international protection at the US-Mexico border.

“They have also continued to evoke the evils of slavery by shackling and handcuffing Black Haitians onboard expulsion flights, inflicting further pain and mental suffering upon them that amounts to torture under international human rights law.

“Our research provides ample evidence that systemic racism is embedded within the US immigration system, as described by Haitian asylum seekers interviewed for this report.”

Anti-Black racial discrimination

The history of enslavement of people of African descent and contemporary forms of systemic anti-Black racism are an important backdrop to this research. As evidence highlighted in the report suggests, practices of ill-treatment towards Haitians are widespread and have occurred historically at different times and in different places, pointing to long-term and systemic racial discrimination within the immigration system with the aim of punishing Haitian people and deterring them from seeking asylum in the United States.

Amnesty calls on all states to address and dismantle systemic racial discrimination and acknowledge how racism is rooted in structures and practices that emerged during colonialism and slavery. The US authorities must take steps to reform all institutions, legislation, policies and practices that reinforce harmful racial and nationality-based stereotypes. Title 42 is a clear example of such a policy. Not only does it unlawfully bypass laws that protect people from being deported to harm, but it also reinforces harmful and racist stereotypes that lead to human rights violations.

While Amnesty has reviewed and summarised strong evidence that anti-Black racism is embedded within the US immigration system, the US authorities do not appear to proactively collect data on racial bias or discrimination, as required by international human rights standards. Reiterating the calls made by more than 100 members of Congress to the Biden administration in February, Amnesty calls on the US government to commit to reversing anti-Black policies and to conduct a full review of the treatment of Black people seeking protection in the US immigration system.

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