Defending Rights & Dissent Condemns Use of Tear Gas Against Refugees

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Defending Rights & Dissent joins people around the world in expressing our outrage, disgust, and horror that US border agents attacked refugees, including children, with tear gas. The images of children, already refugees from violence and poverty, fleeing from tear gas is gut wrenching.

The Chemical Weapons Convention classifies tear gas as a chemical weapon and bans its use as a weapon of war. Perversely, use of tear gas by domestic law enforcement is exempted from this prohibition. Tear gas and other “riot control agents” like pepper spray pose unique risks to children. Irwin Redlener, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University explained:

The fact is that children are uniquely susceptible to deployment of and exposure to riot-control agents such as tear gas and pepper spray. Here’s why:

First, respiratory rates in children are faster than that of adults. An infant, for instance, will take 30 to 60 breaths per minute, and a preschooler will take 22 to 34. Adults, on the other hand, average 12 to 16 breaths per minute. This means that relative to body weight, a child will inhale significantly more air in any given time frame — even more so under conditions of stress or panic. If that air is contaminated with tear gas or pepper spray, younger children will get a disproportionately large dose of the inhalable toxin.

Second, these chemical agents can cause severe respiratory distress in people with preexisting pulmonary conditions such as asthma. This is of particular concern among Central American migrants, as a 2015 study by a multinational research group shows that asthma rates in Honduras and El Salvador are 18 percent and 24 percent, respectively (compared with about 10 percent in the United States). It’s reasonable to assume that a high percentage of the children in the caravan have asthma, and it’s important to note that an acute asthma attack in the absence of immediate medical care could easily be fatal.

 Defending Rights & Dissent has long opposed the use of tear gas against protesters. We also recognize that this is not the first time the border patrol has deployed tear gas and that such actions happened during the Obama Administration. Nonetheless, Trump has demonized refugees traveling thousands of miles by foot to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum at a US port of entry. He has called them invaders and deployed the military to the border. It is illegal for the military to enforce domestic law, including US immigration law.  Trump, over the objection of is own Secretary of Defense, has given the military the authority to use lethal force against the unarmed migrants. Trump has done everything he can to inflame the situation.

Asylum is a human right. US law and international law binding on the US grants fundamental human rights to refugees. Refugees are not invaders and the use of tear gas by domestic law enforcement must be severely curtailed, if not outright banned.