Globally, more than 45,000 children have been released from detention and safely returned to family or an appropriate alternative since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data released by UNICEF on Monday (Nov 15).
Detention of children in the time of COVID reveals that governments and detaining authorities in at least 84 countries have released thousands of children since April 2020 when UNICEF drew attention to their increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in confined and overcrowded spaces, and called for their immediate release.
“We have long known that justice systems are ill-equipped to handle the specific needs of children – a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“We commend countries which heeded our call and released children from detention. By protecting children from conditions that could have exposed them to grave illness, these countries were able to overcome public resistance and spur innovative, age-appropriate justice solutions. This has proved something we already knew – child friendly justice solutions are more than possible.”
Children in detention – including in pre- and post-trial custody, immigration detention, held in relation to armed conflict or national security, or living with parents in detention – are often held in confined and overcrowded spaces.
They lack adequate access to nutrition, healthcare and hygiene services, and are vulnerable to neglect, physical and psychological abuse, and gender-based violence. Many are denied access to lawyers and family care, and unable to challenge the legality of their detention.
COVID-19 has profoundly affected justice for children, shuttering courts and restricting access to essential social and justice services. Evidence shows that many children, including children in street situations, have been detained for violating pandemic curfew orders and movement restrictions.
However, since May 2020, over 5,300 children – nearly 12 per cent of the global figure – have been released from detention centres through virtual Children’s Courts. The age of criminal responsibility in Bangladesh is 9 years compared to the global recommendation of 14 years.
UNICEF has continued to work with the Department of Social Services in Bangladesh to help reunite released children with their families. UNICEF is also supporting the safe reintegration of these children by facilitating access to healthcare and other services such as psychosocial support, violence prevention and response, and education. Only one child from those released has been sent back to a detention centre for a new offence, highlighting the critical role of probation officers and social workers to their reintegration.
“Through the introduction of virtual courts during the pandemic, Bangladesh has played an exemplary role in ensuring the welfare of children. Detention facilities are not well equipped to provide for the needs of children, and the overcrowding of these centres during COVID-19 compounded the risks they face when detained,” said Mr Sheldon Yett, UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh.
“We urge the government to retain the virtual courts for children beyond the pandemic. This is cost effective, ensures speedy trials and prevents children’s exposure to the adverse environment of court premises. The low rates of conviction and re-offense highlight the need for continuing the work of reforming the justice system for children. We must remember, no one benefits when children are detained.”
Worldwide, an estimated 261,000 children in conflict with the law – those who have been alleged, accused or recognized as having committed an offence – are held in detention, according to the second UNICEF analysis. Estimating the number of children deprived of their liberty in the administration of justice – the first such analysis since 2007 – warns that incomplete record-keeping and undeveloped administrative data systems in many countries mean the number is likely to be much higher.
To reimagine justice for children and safely end detention of all children, UNICEF is calling on governments and civil society to:
Invest in legal rights awareness for children in justice and welfare systems, especially for the most marginalized children.
Expand free legal aid, representation, and services for all children.
Prioritize prevention and early intervention in child offending and diversion to appropriate alternatives.
End the detention of children, including through legal reforms to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
Ensure justice for child survivors of sexual violence, abuse or exploitation, including investing in child and gender-sensitive justice processes.
Establish specialized child-friendly courts, and virtual and mobile courts.
“Any child detained is evidence of failed systems, but that failure is then compounded further. Justice systems meant to protect and support children often add to their suffering,” said Fore. “As policymakers, legal practitioners, academics, civil society, and children and young people convene at the World Congress this week, we must work together to end the detention of children.”