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UN expert apologises for faulty figure on children in US migration detention

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Geneva (AFP)

An independent UN expert has apologised for misspeaking during a news conference in Geneva this week, correcting his claim that more than 100,000 children were being held in migration-related US detention.

AFP and a range of other media outlets were forced to retract their stories after it became clear that the expert had mistakenly presented four-year-old cumulative figures as if they were the current total number of migrant children in US detention.

The retractions sparked outcry on social media, with charges from supporters of US President Donald Trump that the stories had been intentionally used to smear the current administration's migration policies.

Manfred Nowak, who led the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, told journalists Monday during a presentation of the report that the US had among the highest number of children in migration-related detention.

"In terms of overall, and now I am talking about children with their parents or unaccompanied children or minors, the United States is one of the countries with the highest numbers. We have more than 100,000 children in migration-related detention in the United States of America," he said.

Concerned that the number sounded high, AFP contacted the expert, who was mandated to draft the nearly 800-page report by the UN General Assembly, to ask him to confirm it.

In that conversation, Nowak confirmed several times that he stood by the figure, telling AFP that "the total number currently detained is 103,000", adding that this "conservative" assessment was based on the latest available official data as well as "very reliable" additional sources.

But a day later, the UN human rights office issued a statement saying Nowak's comment had been "to some extent misunderstood".

The statement claimed that the expert was actually referring to data compiled by the UN refugee agency for 2015, during the presidency of Barack Obama.

And it also said the figure was a cumulative number of migrant children held in detention at any point during that year, and not the number of children held at one time.

AFP once again reached out to Nowak for an explanation, and he acknowledged that "I should have made it clearer that this is an annual data and it is already three years old."

"There was obviously a misunderstanding and I am also happy to apologise for that... I am sorry for that."

When contacted by AFP, the UN rights office declined to comment.

Determining that the entire premise for its original story was faulty, AFP decided to kill it.

According to official data from the US Customs and Border Patrols, 76,020 unaccompanied children and 473,682 "family units" -- which refers to either children or adults arriving with a member of their family -- were apprehended at the border between October 2018 and September 2019.

These figures are cumulative and do not reflect how many people are currently in detention.

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