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Doctors' Group Criticizes Detention of Asylum Seekers in US - 2003-11-21

A group of U.S. physicians says people seeking asylum in the United States are subject to prolonged detention in prison-like conditions with an adverse impact on their mental health. U.S. immigration authorities dispute the findings, saying detention is humane and occurs only in certain, temporary circumstances.

According to a study in the medical journal "The Lancet," asylum seekers arriving in the United States are likely to be detained for months or years while their cases are pending.

The report is by Physicians for Human Rights and the New York University Medical School's Program for Victims of Torture.

Their inspection of detention facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania found virtually windowless converted warehouses used for non-criminal detainees. Asylum seekers with criminal backgrounds are held in local jails.

The doctors say asylum seekers number an estimated five thousand at any given time. They found them to be heavily guarded in all facilities, required to wear jail uniforms, and shackled when transported outside the facilities.

"Since the 1996 immigration law, there has been a much greater propensity to detain asylum seekers in the United States, and, in fact, it's part of a worldwide trend," he said.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Allen Keller of New York University, says interviews with 70 detainees showed that their mental condition deteriorated while being held.

"What we found was extraordinarily high levels of anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder among these detained asylum seekers, and actually these symptoms worsened the longer they were in detention. We're treating individuals fleeing persecution, who have experienced horrific, brutal things, like criminals," he said.

Follow-up interviews with 26 who were granted U.S. asylum and released from detention showed marked improvement in their mental state.

U.S. immigration authorities dispute the report.

"The picture that is presented versus the reality of what happens are two different things," he said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Garrison Courtney concedes that rules for processing asylum seekers tightened after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, later destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. But he says asylum seekers are detained only when their documentation is fraudulent or does not exist. He describes their conditions as humane.

"They're not going to a warehouse without windows. They are open bay, they have phones in a lot of the cells so they can have access to the outside world. They have immediate access to advocacy groups and pro-bono [free] attorneys that can represent them and can help them out with the process. We don't shackle people. That is not our procedure," he said.

Instead of long months or years of detention, Mr. Courtney says the average stay last year was about 38 days, with half held less than 14 days.

The physicians admit that the 70 asylum seekers they interviewed were not a random sample and might not represent the views of all detainees. They add that some interviewees could have exaggerated their psychological symptoms in the hope of gaining quick release.

But Dr. Allen Keller says the findings suggest that policies concerning detention of asylum seekers should be reviewed and mental health services increased.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman says detainees have regular access to psychologists as well as doctors and nurses.