María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Office
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9001
Washington, D.C. - The Rapporteurship on the Rights of the Child of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) carried out a working visit to Guatemala on March 30-31, 2017. The main purpose of the visit was to follow up on the implementation of IACHR Precautionary Measure No. 958/16, which was granted on March 12, 2017, to protect the life and personal integrity of the children and adolescents being housed at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution at the time of the fire that occurred on March 8—including those who suffered various injuries from the fire and those who have been transferred to other locations. The delegation was made up of Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Second Vice-President of the IACHR and Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child, and staff from the Executive Secretariat. Sylvia Mesa, Vice-President of the Follow-Up Mechanism to the Convention of Belém do Pará (MESECVI), accompanied the delegation as an observer.
The Inter-American Commission thanks the government of Guatemala for the invitation it extended to the Rapporteur, and appreciates the availability of the highest-level authorities and the delegation’s open and unrestricted access to all agencies and residential facilities. The IACHR especially appreciates and values the information provided by the State, civil society organizations, the children and adolescents who were affected, the victims’ family members, and other interested parties.
The delegation visited the institution where the fire took place, as well as the Hogar Refugio de la Niñez—the children’s home that is taking care of girls and female adolescents who survived the fire—and the “Alida España” School, which is temporarily housing children and adolescents with mental disabilities who were transferred from the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution after the fire.
The Rapporteur held meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Guatemalan Attorney General; the Deputy Minister of Health; the Presidential Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH); the Secretary of Social Welfare; and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. She also met with the Deputy Human Rights Ombudsman and members of her team; with relatives of the victims of the fire; with the Fundación Sobrevivientes [Survivors Foundation] and the Refugio de la Niñez technical team; with children and adolescents who survived the fire; with UNICEF; and with the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
In Resolution 8/17, dated March 12, 2017, the Inter-American Commission granted Precautionary Measure No. 958-16 and requested that the State of Guatemala adopt the necessary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of the children and adolescents at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, including those who suffered serious burns or other physical or psychological injuries because of the fire of March 8, 2017. It also requested that the State ensure that the conditions provided for the children and adolescents at that institution are brought into line with applicable international standards while the State takes effective steps to encourage the minors’ reintegration into their families, whenever possible and with any necessary support, or that it identify care alternatives that provide greater protection. Consistent with that, the Commission asked the State to apply the appropriate measures to support and assist the families of the children and adolescents so as to facilitate their reintegration, and to prohibit the institutionalization of more children and adolescents at the “Virgen de la Asunción” facility. The IACHR requested that Guatemala reach agreement with the beneficiaries and the petitioning party on the measures to be adopted, and that it report on the steps taken to investigate the allegations that led to the adoption of the precautionary measure, so as to prevent a recurrence.
The Inter-American Commission decided to follow up on the actions taken by the State to comply with the precautionary measure. During her visit, the Rapporteur received relevant information on the various aspects involved.
In terms of necessary measures to protect the life and personal integrity of the children and adolescents at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, the Rapporteur did not receive consistent information regarding the total number of residents who were at the facility on March 8, 2017; figures provided by different authorities range from 588 to 604 residents. In addition, the Rapporteur received information indicating that 29 alerts related to missing children and adolescents had been activated in the context of the events of March 7 and 8, and only five of these alerts were deactivated. The Rapporteur was also given troubling information that would seem to indicate that some children and adolescents were turned over to whoever came to pick them up, without the appropriate legal safeguards taken for their protection. Moreover, there was no consistent information regarding measures to ensure a safe reintegration process with special support for the families. In cases in which the State could not locate a family resource, it proceeded to transfer the children and adolescents to other residential institutions and other types of facilities, to provide emergency shelter.
The IACHR delegation visited one facility where 36 girls who survived the tragic fire were taken, and their accounts attest to the horror they experienced and the serious psychological effects they suffer. The girls and female adolescents described serious situations of abuse at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution before the fire, as well as the conditions in which 58 girls were locked in a 47.8 square meter room, with foam mattresses and flammable materials, as punishment for having escaped the day before. The Inter-American Commission urges the State to provide any necessary psychological support for these girls and adolescents, as well as other protective measures they may need as victims and witnesses of these events, such as measures to safeguard their privacy and identity.
The Rapporteur also visited the “Alida España” School, which is temporarily housing 110 children with disabilities who were taken there from the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution after the fire. At the entrance to the facility, the IACHR met with family members of children who usually attend the school, who have been unable to go to classes because the school is closed. The parents expressed their deep concern, as their children have mental disabilities and have been without any support for almost a month. The Inter-American Commission observed the crowded conditions in which the children are being housed inside the school; classrooms have been turned into dormitories, with mattresses on the floor, and there are not enough bathrooms for that many children. The IACHR urges the State to relocate the children to someplace appropriate to their condition; to provide adequate support to the families within the community through adaptive health, social, and educational services that would allow the family to take care of them; and to consider the possibility of alternative types of housing when this would be in the child’s best interests, in facilities that meet international standards.
The Commission also received information indicating that another group of children with disabilities had been taken to a residential institution in Zacapa, after being housed temporarily at a different institution, the Hogar de Abrigo y Bienestar Integral. As to the health condition of the girls who were taken to the United States, the Rapporteur received information regarding the treatment they were receiving to facilitate their recovery.
During the visit to the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, the Rapporteur interviewed staff at the facility, the Deputy Secretary of Social Welfare, and the 33 children who remain at the center. The children are being housed in a section of the institution called San Gabriel, in rooms that are unfit for children and adolescents, and in unsanitary conditions. The delegation observed the presence of units of the National Civil Police and Special Police Forces at the entrance, and the facility is surrounded by high walls topped by barbed wire, with the types of devices that would be found at a prison instead of a center for protection. The children and adolescents have been deeply affected by the tragedy they experienced, and a place should be found for them that can offer appropriate conditions for protection and care so that they can leave the institution they are in as soon as possible. The delegation was informed that three children had been admitted to this same institution in recent days, the last of these with an order from a judge warning that the officials would be arrested if the child was not admitted. This is extremely troubling, as the Commission requested that the State prohibit more children from being admitted to the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution.
With regard to the investigation into the events, the Inter-American Commission received relevant information from the Public Prosecutor’s Office related to the progress made in the investigation, as well as the complaints that had been received for incidents prior to March 8, 2017. The Commission was told that testimony has been taken from more than 300 people, including the girls who survived the fire, and that complaints of serious acts of violence committed in the vicinity of the institution are being investigated using specialized teams.
Commissioner Arosemena de Troitiño indicated that “the Inter-American Commission has monitored different situations in which children in Guatemala are unprotected due to the lack of an efficient and coordinated system that integrates the various State agencies at the national and local level for the purpose of guaranteeing the rights of all children and adolescents.” She added, “Tragedies such as the one experienced at the ‘Virgen de la Asunción’ Residential Institution should not happen if there is a comprehensive and holistic view of child protection, and not a merely custodial approach that is not in line with the mandates of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” Along these lines, the Rapporteur was pleased to receive information regarding the establishment of a group made up of various authorities, including the Secretariat of Social Welfare, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, and the National Council on Adoptions, along with UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, coordinated by COPREDEH. The group was created to respond to the emergency caused by the tragedy of March 8, as well to design reforms to the system for the promotion and protection of the rights of children and adolescents, with a view to improving the State’s conditions for planning, designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating public policies, programs, and services for children.
The IACHR urges the State to continue implementing urgent, decisive measures to comply with the precautionary measure. In addition, based on the visit, the Commission calls on the State to encourage and support the reintegration into their families, whenever possible, of the children and adolescents who remain at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution and other facilities, or otherwise to identify alternative care measures that are more suited to their condition and that fulfill a truly protective role. The Commission also calls on the State to continue its investigations into what happened and determine those who are responsible; to review all legislation to undertake a substantive reform of child protection and of the national system to fully guarantee the rights of children and adolescents, allocating sufficient resources to do so; and to coordinate the efforts of all government institutions and provide avenues for civil society participation, to respond to the situation and promote a structural change that ensures better conditions for protecting the rights of Guatemalan children.
The Commission will continue to monitor and closely track compliance with the precautionary measure.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.