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Detained children at ‘grave risk’ of contracting COVID-19 – UNICEF chief 

Two young prisoners stand behind bars in a jail in Abomey, Benin.
© UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi
Two young prisoners stand behind bars in a jail in Abomey, Benin.

Detained children at ‘grave risk’ of contracting COVID-19 – UNICEF chief 


Hundreds of thousands of children in detention around the world are at “grave risk” of contracting COVID-19, the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Monday, calling for their urgent release.

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UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore painted a picture of children detained in overcrowded spaces with inadequate access to nutrition, healthcare and hygiene services – conditions highly conducive to spreading disease.

“An outbreak in one of these facilities could happen at any moment”, she said in a statement, adding that these children were also more exposed to neglect, abuse and gender-based violence, especially with low staffing levels or care negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Children detainees

Children across the globe are being held in the juvenile justice system, including pre-trial custody, in immigration detention, or on other administrative grounds. They are also detained in relation to armed conflict, national security or activism, or may be living with parents who are under lock and key. 

“These children and those at risk of contracting the virus due to underlying physical and mental health conditions should be released”, underscored Ms. Fore, calling on governments and other authorities to “urgently release all children” who can safely return to their families, or an appropriate alternative. 

Such alternatives include extended families and other family or community-based care.

Moreover, UNICEF also called for an “immediate moratorium on new admissions of children to detention facilities”.

Management direction

UNICEF and the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, along with leading child rights organizations, academics and UN agencies have released guidance on key actions authorities can take to protect children deprived of their liberty during the pandemic. 

And Ms. Fore maintained that UNICEF stands ready to assist authorities in preparing to release children, including through identifying safe conditions for doing so.

In closing, she spelled out that the rights of children to protection, safety and wellbeing must be upheld at all times: “The best way to uphold the rights of detained children amidst a dangerous pandemic is their safe release.”

Guidelines to protecting children in detention

 •    Monitor children for symptoms and take appropriate treatment steps.
•    Only place a child in medical isolation based on a clinical decision.
•    Inform children in isolation, why they are being isolated.
•    Never place a child in solitary confinement for any reason, as it is forbidden under international law.
•    Provide children with access to adequate health, nutrition, education and legal services.
•    Deliver enhanced access to water, sanitation, hygiene services and supplies.
•    Ensure tailored, gender-sensitive and age-appropriate mental health and psychosocial support, to children and their caregivers.
•    Implement procedures to allow detained children to maintain regular contact with their families.