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07.10.2019 - Press releases

1,5 million children deprived of liberty

Between 1.3 and 1.5 million children are deprived of liberty worldwide, according to a new UN report. For this study, the children's aid organisation Terre des hommes collected testimonies from 274 children and adolescents. The majority of them have suffered violence. The text will be presented at United Nations Headquarters in New York the 8th October and at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 19th November 2019.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly mandated an independent expert to conduct a global study on children deprived of liberty. This report is the first of its kind. It addresses the lack of data on the detention of children. The text will be presented at United Nations headquarters in New York the 8th October and again on 18th November in Geneva to mark the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The study estimates that there are between 1.3 and 1.5 million children deprived of liberty worldwide, a large majority of them are boys. In detention, children are at high risk of violence, rape, sexual assault, torture or degrading treatment.

Disastrous conditions

In most countries, the conditions of detention of children do not meet international standards. Often, they share a cell with adults. They lack air, privacy, care and activities. Most live in fear and isolation, as Jamil, who left Morocco at 17 and was arrested in Albania, explains:
“They handcuffed me and put a hood over my head. In prison, they don’t care if you die. If you are minor or not. When they abuse you they can kill you. They hit with a baton. (...) I could hear people screaming. Once I was beaten so hard that I couldn't move the next day.”

Migrant children in Switzerland

More than 330,000 migrant children are detained each year. At least 77 States are concerned, including Switzerland, which is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report stresses that detention for migration reasons is never in the best interests of the child, whether or not accompanied by his or her parents, and should be prohibited. Terre des hommes (Tdh) agrees with the UN that Switzerland must give priority to alternative solutions and regulate migration through open and appropriate housing within child protection systems.

Conflict and violent extremism

35,000 children are deprived of their liberty in armed conflict or for reasons of national security. This figure has risen sharply as a result of aggressive anti-terrorist measures that allow children to be prosecuted for online activities, including Facebook and Twitter. They may also be held by armed groups for recruitment, sexual exploitation, punitive action or as a bargaining chip.

At least 16 countries in conflict situations detain children, some of whom are subjected to torture. Conditions of detention are often marked by extreme overcrowding and a dramatic lack of hygiene, food and care. In several countries, children have died in detention due to disastrous conditions or as a result of ill-treatment. In Iraq, since early 2019, Tdh has been working year with judicial and social actors to improve the situation of detained children.

Post-traumatic disorders

Deprivation of liberty has an impact on the physical and mental health of children. Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, especially if they have been placed in isolation. Abuse during detention produces or aggravates mental and cognitive health problems, such as anxiety, depression, developmental delays and even language regression. In some cases, psychiatric disorders present before detention have increased tenfold after detention. There is a correlation between deprivation of liberty and early death rates in children, most often as a result of overdose, suicide, injury and violence.

Concerned children

Article 12 of the Convention guarantees the right of the child to express his or her views. For the purposes of the survey, Tdh coordinated the testimonies of 274 children and young adults. These interviews reveal immense suffering. Children are concerned about the lack of adequate procedures, lack of information, conditions of detention and lack of contact with their families. The children also shared experiences of resilience and hope: beyond detention, they hope to be reunited with their families and friends, lead an independent life and support their communities.

"Children deprived of their liberty remain invisible and forgotten. Every child, even if he or she has committed a crime, has the right to express his or her point of view. And we have a duty to listen to it. This listening is essential, because the child is both an expert of his own experience and an agent of change," explains Kristen Hope, in charge of advocacy and research for Tdh.

The UN recommends that States apply the Convention on the Rights of the Child with the utmost rigour. It requires that the deprivation of children's liberty be considered as an exceptional measure of last resort. Tdh urges all States, in particular Switzerland, to review and adapt the good practices documented in the study.


For more information: "Global study on children deprived of liberty", United Nations, July 2019

©Tdh/Mélanie Rouiller