Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a diplomat turned activist. To raise awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, she is setting out for an expedition to Antarctica in December 2018. Eirliani will document her inner and outer struggles as she is preparing for this trip, pulling a sled with 190 pounds in food and gear, in temperatures dipping to minus 48 degrees Celsius.
This is part 6 of Eirliani’s personal leadership journey.
I am still discombobulated by the news that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS), between October and December 2017, was unable to locate 1,475, or about 19 percent, out of the 7,635 minors that it attempted to reach. They had arrived at the U.S. border unaccompanied and were placed with sponsors. Most of them are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, fleeing from drug cartels, gang violence, and domestic abuse. In 2016, a governmental report showed that the federal government was not able to reach 16 percent of the children it had placed, leaving 4,159 children unaccounted for.
Eirliani Abdul Rahman
Eirliani Abdul Rahman is preparing for a 700-mile ski trip to the South Pole in December 2018 to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors. She is the co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection, and a member of Twitter’s Safety & Trust Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundationand is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab.
In 2015, she led a successful campaign of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“Save the Childhood Movement”) founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi called #FullStop to #childsexualabuse in India, which reached 16 million people over 6 weeks. Eirliani is co-author of the book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” She won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.
I work on the issue of child rights, specifically child abuse. I am concerned on three counts.
First, sponsors – usually parents or family members already residing in the United States – are meant to undergo a detailed background check. However, this has not happened with the HSS taking sponsors’ statements and parental testimonies at face value. Parents of children being trafficked often face pressure from the traffickers to falsely submit that the sponsors in the United States are family members when they are not.
The HSS has faced increased scrutiny following a scathing 2016 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee that it failed to protect unaccompanied minors from traffickers and other abuses.
Second, the HSS has declared it was not legally responsible for children after they had been released from its refugee office, explaining that the phone calls to track them down were made voluntarily. It is a fallacy to assume that all sponsors have good intentions. Congress is now examining the agency’s safeguards.
Third, the HSS has also made it clear it that it does not track unaccompanied minors who fail to appear at their immigration court hearings. This is problematic because the children may be held against their will, and in worst case scenarios, held as child laborers, as was the case for 8 minors forced to work on an egg farm in the state of Ohio in 2014. According to one report, of those children who were deported, 40% were sentenced in absentia.
As if all this is not bad enough, the Trump administration announced on May 7, 2018, that it will separate immigrant children from their parents at the border as a form of deterrence, with parents having no recourse to an eventual reunion with their kids. President Trump described these children as future criminals, saying at a roundtable held at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center: “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
What Attorney General Jeff Sessions said when announcing the new policy is equally disconcerting: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” Sessions’ definition of “smuggling” included travelling with one’s own child.
"Sessions’ definition of 'smuggling' included travelling with one’s own child."
In practice, hundreds of immigrant children have already been separated from their parents at the border since October 2017, but this is a new “zero tolerance” policy. In a particularly callous statement by the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, parents would be detained while children would be “put into foster care or whatever” (emphasis mine).
Again, I am worried on two fronts. First, the U.S. government should not be treating parents who are trying to cross the border without papers as presumptive criminals, and therefore unworthy of the children under their care. Second, what are the safeguards to ensure that the children will be returned to their rightful parents at the end of the detention period? No accountability means higher risks that these children will fall into the hands of traffickers.
Here, I’d like to quote Amy Davidson Sorkin’s article in The New Yorker of May 29, 2018, which captures the disconnect in a Senate hearing on May 15, 2018, in an exchange between Senator Kamala Harris of California and Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security:
‘“So your agency will be separating children from their parents,” Harris said.
“No,” Nielsen replied. “What we’ll be doing is prosecuting parents who have broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America” – as if the fact of prosecution made a separation something other than a separation.
“I can appreciate that,” Harris said. “But if that parent has a four-year-old child, what do you plan on doing with that child?”
“The child, under law, goes to HHS for care and custody,” Nielsen said.
“They will be separated from their parent. And so my question—”
Nielsen interrupted her: “Just like we do in the United States every day.”’
The furor over these latest developments has given rise to the hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren and #FamiliesBelongTogether
Do your bit to express your concerns:
→ Write and blog about it and take to social media to spread awareness.
→ Support charities and organizations focused on helping children including the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (we have an office in Washington, D.C.), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Asylum Advocacy, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, KIND: Kids in Need of Defense, Lutheran Immigration Services, the National Immigrant Justice Association of the Heartland Alliance, United We Dream, and the Young Center for Immigrant and Children’s Rights.
→ If you live in the United States or are planning to travel to the United States, attend or host a rally on June 14. Check out this site for details of local marches for stolen children on June 14. Hashtags being used to spread the word are: #MarchforStolenChildren
#FamiliesBelongTogether and #WhereAreTheChildren
→ If you are an American citizen, call your elected representatives to express your views. The congressional switchboard is (202) 224-3121.
I am thankful that I was born and grew up in Singapore. I now reside in Colorado, in the United States. In Save the Children’s second annual End of Childhood Index, 175 countries were ranked. Singapore and Slovenia tied for top spot with scores of 987 each, indicating that few children are missing out on childhood. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala scored 619, 651, and 747 respectively, indicating that many children in these three countries are missing out on childhood.
These are the countries where the majority of the unaccompanied children entering the United States are from.
Suffer the little children. Every child matters.
Previously in this series: Why This Woman Is Going to the South Pole
Coming up next: More on Eirliani’s adventures training in the Arctic.