(Madrid, May 7, 2002) - Moroccan migrant children in Spain are frequently beaten by police and abused by staff and other children in overcrowded, unsanitary residential centers, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today. Spain also summarily expels children as young as eleven to Morocco, where Moroccan police beat and ill-treat them and then abandon them to the streets.
"No one is caring for these children," said Clarisa Bencomo, researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Spanish officials violate these migrant children's human rights in an effort to drive them back to Morocco, and Moroccan officials punish them for having left."
Conditions in two Spanish residential centers, the San Antonio Center in Ceuta and Purísima Concepción Fort in Melilla, were especially bad, with substandard facilities, serious overcrowding, and no recreational space or leisure-time activities for children. Children whom Human Rights Watch interviewed consistently testified that staff at these centers frequently beat and threatened them. Staff at the San Antonio Center operated a "punishment cell" where they locked up children for up to a week without adequate bedding and sometimes without access to a toilet. Younger and smaller children reported being attacked or robbed by older or larger children at these centers while staff watched without intervening.
"Children told us they felt safer living on the streets than in the overcrowded, dangerous residential centers Spain provides for their care," Bencomo said.
Human Rights Watch charged that Spain denied education to the vast majority of unaccompanied migrant children in Ceuta and many children in Melilla, and that staff at both public health clinics and residential centers arbitrarily denied health care to ill and injured children in Ceuta.
Spanish law guarantees unaccompanied foreign children care and protection on the same basis as Spanish children, including the right to education, health care, temporary residency status, and protection from repatriation when repatriation would put the child in danger. Local officials in Ceuta and Melilla regularly disregard the law, arbitrarily denying children care and protection. Central government officials admitted they do not regularly monitor children's treatment or bring serious abuse cases to court. In many instances that Human Rights Watch investigated, the bodies charged with protecting children - the police and the Departments of Social Welfare - were the source of abuses.
"The Spanish government says it cares about children's rights, but it does little if anything to enforce its own laws," Bencomo said. "Whenever we asked government officials what they were doing to protect children, they always claimed it was someone else's responsibility."
Spain expelled children from Ceuta and Melilla by handing them over to Moroccan police, who beat and ill-treated them. The Moroccan police then released the children onto unfamiliar streets, often late at night. Even very young children were left to fend for themselves because Morocco lacked adequate provisions for the protection of children living outside a family environment, and Moroccan authorities typically only intervened when a child was suspected of committing a serious criminal offense. Care in many Moroccan child detention centers was grossly inadequate, but judges had few alternatives to these facilities if they could not safely return a child to his or her family.
Human Rights Watch called on the Government of Spain to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children have access to residential care, education, emergency services and other health care, and temporary residency documents, as required by Spanish law. Residential centers for unaccompanied children should meet basic standards of health and safety and provide children the protection and care necessary for their well being. Spain should not repatriate or expel children unless the government has verified that the child is to be returned either to a family member who is willing and able to care for the child or to an appropriate social service agency in the child's country of origin, and that the child's return poses no risk or danger to the child's safety or to the safety of his or her relatives.
Human Rights Watch called on the Government of Morocco to facilitate the return to Morocco of unaccompanied migrant children when it is in the children's best interest and to provide resources for their care and protection, including designating a social welfare agency to receive unaccompanied migrant children who have been returned from Spain and, where appropriate, return them to their families. Morocco should protect unaccompanied migrant children who have been returned to Morocco from Spain from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and other abuses at the hands of police.
The organization also called on both governments to work together to ensure that children are repatriated from Spain to Morocco only when they are returned to family members who are willing and able to care for them or to an appropriate social service agency.
"Spanish or Moroccan police should not be the agency responsible for repatriating unaccompanied migrant children," Bencomo said.