We Treat America’s Wartime Detainees Better than Migrant Children

We Treat America’s Wartime Detainees Better than Migrant Children

Considered opinion: Migrant childrenWe Treat America’s Wartime Detainees Better than Migrant Children


By Ryan Vogel


Published 12 July 2019

The stories of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse of migrant children held in U.S. government detention proliferate. Ryan Vogel writes that “the standards for treatment of detained persons in wartime are not the same as those required in peacetime immigration situations” – in fact: “in most instances, if not all, migrant children held in temporary government custody should be detained in conditions superior to those of enemy fighters detained during wartime.” He adds: “It is a moral issue. As a nation, we decided that the United States would meet and surpass all legal requirements for our wartime detainees. We determined that even though al Qaeda and other terrorist groups would never reciprocate, we would treat them humanely and with dignity. That we would go above and beyond the minimal standards of the Geneva Conventions and hold ourselves to a higher standard. And that we would hold our people accountable for any and all violations of these standards. We have done that with wartime detention. It is time we did that, and much more, for our detention of migrant children.”



As Congress and the Trump administration continue to consider options to improve the current situation on the southern border—where migrant children are being separated from their families and guardians, and detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—the stories of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse proliferate. This has led some, including Fox News’s Shep Smith and Just Security’s Ryan Goodman to assert that America has treated even its wartime prisoners better than these migrant children. They are right.


Ryan Vogel writes in Just Security that in his former job at the Pentagon, he worked on detainee policy issues and visited U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. “I know well the challenges and, ultimately, successes the United States has had with wartime detention. Indeed, over the course of America’s post-9/11 wars, the United States eventually developed a detainee policy and practice that Americans could be proud of, and, which now serves as a model for detention in modern armed conflict.”


Vogel notes that the standards for treatment of detained persons in wartime are not the same as those required in peacetime immigration situations (for a discussion of the standards that apply to the detention of migrant children under international human rights law, see this expert backgrounder by Felice Gaer). “My intention here is not to assert that standards from the law governing armed conflict should apply to the situation on the southern border. To the contrary, in most instances, if not all, migrant children held in temporary government custody should be detained in conditions superior to those of enemy fighters detained during wartime. Still, it is a worthwhile exercise to consider the differences in how we treat enemy fighters and migrant children.”