Detained children are more vulnerable to neglect, abuse and gender-based violence, especially if staffing levels or care are negatively impacted by the pandemic or containment measures.
Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore has called on governments and other detaining authorities to urgently release all children who can safely return to their families or an appropriate alternative.
Such alternatives include extended families, other family- or community-based care, Fore said in a statement mentioning that Unicef also calls for an immediate moratorium on new admissions of children to detention facilities.
Hundreds of thousands of children currently detained in countries around the world are at grave risk of contracting COVID-19, she said.
"Many are being held in confined and overcrowded spaces with inadequate access to nutrition, healthcare and hygiene services – conditions that are highly conducive to the spread of diseases like COVID-19. An outbreak in one of these facilities could happen at any moment," Fore said.
She said detained children are also more vulnerable to neglect, abuse and gender-based violence, especially if staffing levels or care are negatively impacted by the pandemic or containment measures.
Across the globe, Fore said, children are in the juvenile justice system including in pre-trial custody, held in immigration detention or on other administrative grounds, detained in relation to armed conflict, national security or activism, or living with parents in detention.
These children and those at risk of contracting the virus due to underlying physical and mental health conditions should be released, said the Unicef Executive Director.
She said 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.
Fore said Unicef stands ready to assist authorities in preparing to release children, including through identifying safe conditions.
"The rights of children to protection, safety and wellbeing must be upheld at all times, even and especially during crises like the one the world faces today. The best way to uphold the rights of detained children amidst a dangerous pandemic is their safe release."