Press Release

IACHR Expresses Its Concern Over Reports of Sterilizations and Surgical Interventions Without Consent in Migrant Detention Centers in the United States

October 30, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the sterilization without adequate information and prior consent that have allegedly taken place at the migrant detention center in Irwin County, Georgia. These nonconsensual surgical procedures would represent a violation of the rights to personal security, to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and to the preservation of the health of migrant women. It represents a complex manifestation of violence based on intersecting factors that include gender, migrant status, race, and national origin. In the light of Inter-American standards, these practices could also constitute a serious violation of the reproductive and sexual rights of the women concerned. In response, the IACHR urges the state to immediately eradicate such practices and to investigate, prosecute, and sanction those responsible for them. Likewise, the United States should provide the victims with an effective remedy for those whose human rights have been violated.  

According to the complaint presented by human rights organizations to the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), dated September 14, 2020, there were several violations against migrant persons, mainly against women, detained at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Irwin, which is operated by a private company that also runs other detention centers. This complaint was corroborated by a report from an independent medical team whose findings were published on October 22. It reviewed the medical records of 19 migrant women who were previously detained and described multiple violations of human rights, including reproductive rights and the right to health in general. In addition to the surgical procedures mentioned above,  the following issues were highlighted (i) overall negligent general medical care; (ii) a lack of effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19; (iii) obstacles to accessing medical services due to language barriers and a lack of interpreters; and (iv) discriminatory treatment and intimidation of migrants from Spanish-speaking countries, especially by medical staff at the center. 

The IACHR observes that the complaint includes testimonies from a former nurse and detainees at the Irwin ICE Detention Center, who allege the existence of  unjustified invasive surgical procedures —including sterilization practices such as hysterectomies— on female migrants in detention. This situation has allegedly worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been exacerbated by the absence of adequate channels of communication, resulting in an atmosphere of tension and misinformation among the migrant population detained at the center.

In response to these allegations, the IACHR recalls the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the ruling on Case of IV v. the State of Bolivia. The Court noted that sexual and reproductive health constitutes an aspect of health that has specific implications for women due to their biological capacity to carry and give birth to children. It is related on the one hand, to autonomy and reproductive freedom in terms of the rights of  women to make autonomous decisions about their lives and bodies. Sexual and reproductive health is also linked to access to services, information, and education, and to the means that allow them to exercise this right. In this regard, the Inter-American Court determined that permanently terminating a woman’s reproductive capacity, causing infertility, and imposing a serious, lasting physical change on her without her consent causes serious mental and physical suffering. In a similar vein, the United Nations Committee against Torture has pointed out that gender, in combination with other personal characteristics such as race, migratory status, or age, can determine the ways in which women and girls suffer or are at risk of torture and ill-treatment.

Likewise, the IACHR wishes to highlight the intersectional nature of the general framework in which these violations are reported—the combination of deprivation of liberty, gender discrimination, and other differentiated impacts. In response to this and in consideration of the need to adopt a differentiated and intersectional approach, the IACHR reminds the state of its international obligation to protect the human rights of all persons subject to its jurisdiction and in particular, regarding the right personal security, in the context of women’s sexual and reproductive health. Therefore, the IACHR urges the state to immediately eliminate these practices, to review the mechanisms for obtaining consent, and to provide information about medical procedures to  migrants in detention. 

With regard to the complaints of negligent healthcare at the Irwin migrant detention center, according to information available to the IACHR, these consist mainly of: (i) inadequate  medical care; (ii) insufficient cleaning and disinfection services; and (iii) a shortage of both general and medical personnel. According to public information, this situation would expose both the migrants deprived of liberty and staff at the facility to risks of infection from COVID-19 and other diseases. In particular, in the context of the pandemic, other irregularities have been observed, such as a lack of protective equipment and protocols, the absence of biosafety practices, the lack of space for quarantining and social distancing, and insufficient testing to identify suspected cases of COVID-19. 

On the other hand, in keeping with information recently received, the CIDH learnt  of a pattern of abuse and serious violations of rights within immigration detention centers in the country. In particular, among other violations, there are complaints related to: i) sexual abuse and gender-based violence, ii) deprivation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, iii) deplorable conditions of detention, and iv) forced separation of girls, boys and adolescents migrants. 

In this context, the IACHR calls on the United States to analyze these allegations seriously, implement an in-depth review of the practices and protocols for attending to migrants, and ensure that they have effective access to justice. Furthermore, it urges the state to promote a comprehensive restructuring of the procedures and institutions that created these systematic violations. These measures should contemplate accountability, including by private operators, to prevent these events from being repeated. The IACHR underscores the need for the US migration response to be consistent with the principles of non-criminalization of migration and comprehensive protection of human rights. The IACHR noted that the following publications include guidelines for adopting such measures: the recommendations and guidelines provided in the Inter-American Principles on the Human Rights of All Migrants, Refugees, Stateless Persons, and Victims of Human Trafficking, Resolution 01/20 on Pandemics and Human Rights, and the accompanying press releases on the issue, namely Press Release no. 77/2020 and Press Release no. 179/2020.

Finally, the IACHR is concerned by the fact that, according to information published by the press, no relevant measures were taken between September 14, the date when the complaint was formally submitted to the Office of the Inspector General of the DHS, and the most recent press reports, which were published on October 22. The public reports and information received by the IACHR are a further source of concern, as they indicate a climate of fear of reprisals against migrants detained at the Irwin detention center. In this context, the IACHR stresses the importance of ensuring the free and full right of personal security of witnesses and all human rights defenders and those collaborating with the justice system. 

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 262/20