The Observer view on how separating families marks a moral low for Donald Trump
The really shocking thing about the spectacle of distraught children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border is not the . That is beyond question. Nor is it the mind-numbing idiocy of a shambolic policy that shames the US government and its agents and, as the UN suggests, is in probable breach of international human rights law. No, the really shocking thing is Donald Trump’s evident inability to understand what the fuss is about. , such a deficit of common human decency?
Trump’s belated suspension of the separations offers scant relief. About 2,000 small children – nobody seems to have an exact count – remain incarcerated in “baby jails”, or what officials disingenuously call “tender age migrant shelters”. Their families do not know where they are. Nor have US border guards kept matching lists of parents detained for alleged illegal entry under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Now, in another grotesque betrayal of the hard-won values of the “land of the free”, there are reported on remote military bases in the California and Arizona deserts.
Illegal immigration is a problem facing many countries around the world. But, as Bishop Michael Curry, primate of the US Episcopal church, , that is no excuse for brutality, especially in a country that aspires to exemplary global leadership. “Families making treacherous and often dangerous journeys to seek refuge in the US are desperate… You cannot deter people who are fleeing for their lives. We should be meeting these people with compassion,” Curry writes.
Millions of Americans agree. Their reaction to what Curry calls this “moment of national shame” has provided a welcome contrast to the immoral behaviour of their president. This generous outpouring undercuts the ugly image of a mean, selfish and inward-looking country that has been developing under Trump’s “nasty party” tutelage. Most Americans, thankfully, are better than Trump. Still denying responsibility, cravenly shifting blame and lying at every turn, he epitomises the very worst side of human nature.
Will this unfinished scandal have lasting impact on his presidency? Critics term it his “”, a reference to the irreparable damage done to George W Bush’s reputation in 2005 after he appeared indifferent to Hurricane Katrina’s victims.
For some, it is the grim culmination of 18 months of clueless, feckless misrule that has undermined US standing in the world, weakened long-standing alliances, boosted foreign dictators and polarised the American nation along racial, social and cultural lines. There is a clear line connecting .
Nobody doubts the seriousness of the problem. It is the that may yet prove a decisive turning point for him. In this respect and others, the furore could carry hidden benefits. It has indirectly highlighted the plight of migrant children everywhere. Marking World Refugee Day, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said protecting such children was a “”. Worldwide last year, nearly 174,000 refugee and asylum-seeking children were separated from their families or forced to flee alone, he said.
Unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan are producing generations of children who know nothing but war, kids traumatised, damaged and abused beyond our polite imagining. Add to them the countless child casualties of societal breakdowns in impoverished, disadvantaged countries such as Venezuela and throughout central America. Whether it’s their militarised foreign policies or their insatiable appetite for drugs, resources and cheap labour, wealthy western countries bear direct responsibility. It is not just Trump’s mess. We should all help clear it up.
Even as Europeans berate the US government for its callousness, EU leaders will meet tomorrow to try to put their own immigration house in order. Lest we forget, international opinion was similarly appalled in September 2015 by a photograph of in the arms of a Turkish policeman, one of 12 Syrians drowned while attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos.
The number of migrants trying to reach by sea has fallen dramatically since then, so has the death toll. But the political fallout from Europe’s chronic failure, akin to that of the US, to enunciate an agreed, humane policy has only intensified.
There are no easy answers, But it is plain what governments should not be doing. They should not be locking up children. They should not be treating asylum seekers as criminals. They should stop denying the role their policies have played in creating this crisis. And they must make clear that it is unacceptable for any politician, anywhere, to exploit the migrant issue to advance extreme xenophobic, nationalist agendas. That must be Theresa May’s uncompromising message to Trump when he visits the UK next month. If it becomes obvious he is not prepared to listen, he should be turned back at the border.