Children do not belong behind bars

Helena Spriet
13 November 2019
Every year, up to 1.5 million children are deprived of their liberty. In its new report, Defence for Children analyses this disturbing phenomenon.  

When we think of deprivation of liberty, we immediately consider the detention of children in a juvenile prison. But what about children in an institution or migrant children who are (temporarily) detained in a closed reception centre? And in what circumstances are they locked up? The report provides a clear definition of deprivation of liberty: ‘any form of detention or imprisonment in a public or private setting, from which the child is not permitted, by order of any competent authority, to leave at will’.

The research focuses on 6 different contexts: juvenile justice, migration, parents living in detention centres, institutions, armed conflict and national security. Deprivation of liberty also includes children imprisoned for protection reasons.

The deprivation of liberty has a very significant impact on the children’s lives. Their health, development and future in general are at risk. Especially when this imprisonment takes place in inhumane conditions. The exact circumstances usually remain rather mysterious, since the states prefer not to talk about them openly.

Between 430 000 and 680 000 children are detained in institutions, at least 410 000 in penal institutions such as prisons, 330 000 children are deprived of their liberty in the context of migration...

Terrifying figures

The report estimates that around 1,3 to 1,5 million children worldwide are deprived of their liberty every year. Between 430 000 and 680 000 children are detained in institutions, at least 410 000 in penal institutions such as prisons, 330 000 children are deprived of their liberty in the context of migration, 35 000 children are locked up in situations of armed conflict, 1 500 in a national security context and 19 000 children live in prison with a detained parent.

Although these figures are alarmingly high, they are not yet exhaustive. For example, they do not take into account the children held in police stations. The researchers also acknowledge that not all countries have participated. In Belgium too, for example, it was not possible to give a global figure because of the time pressure. Some regions were not counted. However, these gaps do stimulate further research.

 

What is the situation in Belgium? 

With the help of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child, the deprivation of liberty of children was also investigated in Belgium. The situation in Belgium appears to be quite positive compared to some other countries. However, there is still room for improvement. For example, there is no system, in line with the UN desiderata, for lodging complaints during the period of detention. In addition, employees in institutions and youth prisons should receive better training on children's rights.

 

The situation in Belgium appears to be quite positive compared to some other countries. However, there is still room for improvement.

Defence for Children International

At the request of the UN, Defence for Children International took the lead in the global research. The international organisation, which has 42 international sections, promotes the rights of the child worldwide. United Nations organisations such as UNICEF, states, academic experts, groups of children and more than 170 international NGOs also contributed to this study. They have attempted to assess the extent of the phenomenon and to extract children's experiences from practice. They have made a number of recommendations that UN Member States should implement in order to limit the deprivation of liberty of children.

 

Impact of the global study

Thanks to the report, the deprivation of children's liberty is once again high on the political agenda of the UN. The results and recommendations oblige the members of the UN to think about deprivation of liberty. Where are the limits? Would there be a different approach?

The study allows children without a voice or left behind to speak. First and foremost, states must strive to limit the deprivation of liberty of children to an absolute minimum and ensure that their living conditions are improved, for example, providing a complaints centre or an independent mechanism children can address with their complaints. Finally, the reintegration and future prospects of children also deserve increased attention.

 

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About the same theme - Article 3 /9 Children’s rights : also during armed conflicts