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Spotlight on Covid-19 and children deprived of liberty

by Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children

It is an unfortunate reality that in many countries in the world children in detention and those in institutions are some of the most forgotten and neglected members of society. Before the covid-19 outbreak, according to the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, an estimated 7 million children were deprived of their liberty worldwide, including 410,000 children held in jails or prisons, 330,000 in immigration detention centres and between 430,000 and 680,000 in institutions that met the legal definition of deprivation of liberty.

The experience from past and current pandemic show that most forgotten and neglected children are also the ones that are the hardest hit and suffer the most. Overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions and nutrition, underlying medical conditions and limited or lack of access to health care services elevate the risk of the rapid spread of the virus in prisons and other closed settings and can lead to poor health outcomes for those infected. Children in institutions, especially those with disabilities, represent a particularly high-risk group¹.  

Since the outbreak of the pandemic governments around the world have taken various steps to mitigate the risks posed by the virus to adult as well as child population, including detained children.  The impact of such measures presents a mixed picture of success as well as additional challenges and risks for the realizations of children’s rights in the context of deprivation of liberty.

One positive development observed was that number of countries – 31 in total according to UNICEF – released children from detention in response to calls from international organizations, human rights mechanisms and CSOs advocating for children’s rights. While there is no exact global data on the numbers and profile of released children, priority was most probably given to younger children, first-time and non-violent offenders, who should not have been in detention in the first place, if countries had followed the principle of using detention as a measure of last resort. This new opportunity presented by the pandemic has to be fully seized and new impetus should be given to justice reforms that prioritize alternatives to detention, diversion and restorative justice mechanisms over custodial measures and deprivation of liberty. After all, what seemed impossible pre-Covid, turned out to be possible and more cost-effective in many countries. Another issue that should not be forgotten is that if there are no adequately resourced and well-functioning services, children may find themselves back to prisons in view of socio-economic hardships caused by the pandemic and potential increase in offending. 

There were examples when countries followed similar paths and reintegrated institutionalized children back to families and communities to relieve overcrowding as well as the pressure on stretched human resources. Moreover, where children were returned to families and communities, concerns were raised if these transitions from institutional to family-type care were well prepared and safe enough, and if subsequent monitoring and support were provided to prevent contracting the virus by children or their abuse at the hands of new careers. 

There were also some worrying trends observed during the crisis – detention of children for migration-related reasons, which is always prohibited and never in the best interest of a child, continued to be used by states (in Europe as well as in the U.S.), putting children in overcrowded and poor hygienic situations and hence, at a higher risk of contracting the virus.  In some instances, media and CSO reported confinement of hundreds of migrant children in hotels, without access to the outside world and proper state oversight leaving children at increased risks of violence and abuse².   Moreover, there was a worrying trend with an increase of family removals among indigenous communities, with a 5 % increase reported of Aboriginal children in Australia, and similar trends have been seen in Maori communities in New Zeeland and Native American in Canada.

Despite some positive developments, early release schemes did not sufficiently prioritize children and pregnant women and mothers with children. Children, including street connected children, were being detained for violation of curfew or other lock-down measures.  Solitary confinement, which is prohibited under international law and may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and in some cases – to torture, was being used as a public health measure to enforce social distancing for the prevention of the spread of the virus, causing serious harm to children’s mental health³.  Moreover, as part of lock-down measures, in most of the countries, family visits were suspended, deepening the sense of isolation and resulting in further harm to children. Suspension of visits is even more worrying in countries where children in detention often rely on families or external organizations for the provision of food or supply of drinking water.  External monitoring and oversight by National Preventive Mechanisms or other independent oversight bodies have become more important than ever, however, due to Covid-19 containment measures such visits were postponed or on hold,  leaving children in detention and institutions at increased risks of peer violence or/ill-treatment. Rights such as access to lawyer and the right to challenge pre-trial detention could not be effectively exercised.

While facing these new challenges, the pandemic also helped us to gain a new perspective and realize how difficult it is to be confined in one’s own home in a loving and nurturing environment. Our feelings could not even be compared to sufferings of children who are confined in overcrowded, unfriendly and dire conditions for months and years, facing violence and ill-treatment, many of them, for no fault on their side, including children detained on migration-related grounds or children placed in institutions.

The recommendations of the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty were developed before the Covid-19 outbreak in October 2019, however, they have gained even more urgency in the context of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opening to re-engage in child justice reforms and bring about sustainable long-term change, where detention of children as truly a measure of last resort for all children and never for migration-related issues. Together with my UN colleagues in the task force for the Global Study and the attached NGO Panel, I plan to make the best use of this opportunity and ensure that no child is left behind as we towards 2030 and fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goal 16.2 on ending all forms of violence. 

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[1] During covid-19 related lockdown in Kazakhstan media reported death of 4 children living in state institution for children with disabilities, and hospitalization of 16 children due to measles and other infectious disease.  https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/21/four-institutionalized-children-die-kazakhstans-covid-19-lockdown

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/03/us/migrant-children-detained-hotels/index.html

[3] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/14/detained-children-left-out-covid-19-response

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