Immigration Detention is a Public Health Risk
Updated: Oct 5
What we are learning about the treatment of people in detention facilities in the USA, Greece, Germany and elsewhere should make it clear that immigration detention is one thing that should not survive the pandemic
by Tina Lee
Last month we learned of credible allegations that people in immigration custody in Georgia (USA) were subjected to forced hysterectomies and other unnecessary invasive medical procedures after visiting an ICE-contracted doctor for routine gynecological complaints. For those who don’t know, a hysterectomy is surgery to remove a uterus. It should be viewed as a last case scenario for persistent problems with that organ. It is not a first line treatment scenario, particularly for people young enough to wish to bear children.
The allegations were brought to light by a whistleblower report by a nurse at the facility named Dawn Wooten. As a mother of five, she could no longer bear to hear continuous rumors from women in the facility of the “uterus collector.”
The gruesomeness of this latest installment of the 'American Horror Story', has distracted somewhat from the other aspect of Wooten’s allegation. Namely that immigrants in custody were denied COVID-19 tests and that the privately-run detention center she worked in Georgia at was under-reporting cases of the virus. Instead it was transferring COVID-positive patients to other facilities, and sending detainees to solitary confinement if they complained.
Both elements of this story have plenty of historical and modern precedent. The spectre of forced sterilization brings to mind many such incidents in US history, such as those against Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, and gynecological experiments performed on enslaved Black women in the South. Even more recently until just a few years ago, several Eastern European countries performed sterilization procedures on Roma mothers . These were a form of ethnic cleansing focused on women in vulnerable conditions after childbirth and unable to give consent.
Again in Europe, the denial of rights during the pandemic to people housed in immigration detention is a terrible continuation of institutionally racist policies. These disregard the lives of immigrants against public outcry and EU law to please a far-right minority.
For instance, the recent destruction of Moria camp in Greece by arsonists was a violent act in response to a genocidal one by local government. Authorities decided to send COVID-19 positive individuals back into an enclosed space to live in mandatory quarantine - alongside thousands of people - all with no access to adequate hygiene or healthcare. This baffling abdication of basic common sense or public health standards endangered the lives of thousands of people. This at a time when an easy solution - create a separate facility for COVID-positive patients to quarantine and receive treatment - is at the tip of the tongue of anyone with basic logical reasoning skills. The reason for NOT doing this is the belief that all claims for basic human rights are abandoned by those who choose to move across borders in search or safety or a better life. This belief seems to be shared by many allegedly democratic governments. Despite the fact that international humanitarian law has long granted rights to such individuals, regardless of their immigration status.
Reports collected by 'International Women* Space' from inside detention centers in Germany shows that here also - is an utter lack of foresight and basic public health practices. This lack condemned people in immigration detention (without regard for whether they are in a risk group) to share bathrooms, eating and living space with COVID-positive people; and held people who had not yet had test results together with people in quarantine.
Governments had every reason to foresee that COVID-19 would pose an existential threat to people living in immigration detention. I pointed this out in March. Governments could have taken precautions to ensure that people would not be exposed to the virus; or if they were, to be allocated proper quarantine and medical treatment. Not to ensure that people would pass it on further to their fellow detainees, workers on the sites, and the entire communities that these facilities exist in. The failure to address this risk by transferring people to adequate housing (such as widely available vacation rentals or hotels), adhering to proper hygiene standards, and releasing people to stay with family members or civil society organizations - is a failure to respect basic human rights and to prevent the spread of the virus to everyone in society- a total dereliction of their duties.
The insanity and horror of subjecting people in immigration custody to forced hysterectomies matches the greatest fears of what is happening to immigrants under a fascist Trump regime. That regime has declared immigrants public enemy number one. But this extreme act of violence against people in detention should be seen as an extension of the dehumanization that allows detention facilities all over the world - including in Germany - to subject people to human rights violations in the time of Corona. This not only endangers but entire communities. This will continue until people of conscience agree that the horror of immigration detention is a threat to us all.