in Europe

How many children are detained worldwide?


On 8th October 2019, the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, a document of unprecedented reach, was presented at the UN General Assembly by the independent expert Manfred Nowak. Terre des hommes (Tdh) has actively contributed by collecting children’s views to be included in the report.

Between 1.3 and 1.5 million children are detained worldwide! Depriving children of liberty has long-lasting negative consequences on their development and their future. No kind of detention is in the best interest of the child. Behind bars, they are locked up in isolated and dark places. There, their rights are often violated. They face a high risk of violence, rape, sexual assault, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Sometimes they are placed in cells with adults; another right denied.

Ensuring that children’s voices are heard

Children deprived of liberty remain forgotten. Their voices are lost before reaching the public. The Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty puts a spotlight on this harsh and often invisible reality. Tdh recognised the Study as an opportunity to ensure that their right to be heard is upheld and that their opinion is taken into account. To that end, Tdh and academic partners interviewed more than 270 children from 20 countries to ask for their input and to give them a voice. Most of them are beneficiaries of our long-standing activities that directly support children deprived of liberty.

The children expressed that their rights are not protected, including being detained in poor conditions, being denied access to information, receiving poor healthcare and inadequate access to education or leisure. Many of them experienced barriers to contact their families and struggled to access support for reintegration. They reported struggling to be heard in decisions made about them. Children deprived of liberty experience fear, isolation, trauma and harm in addition to discrimination, stigma and disempowerment. But they also shared experiences of resilience and hope by highlighting the importance of friendships with peers and adults whom they could trust. Many children had positive aspirations for a future beyond detention, where they would reunite with their families and friends and enjoy a life as independent human beings contributing to their communities. They saw education and skills development as integral to achieving a better life.

Kristen Hope, our research and advocacy coordinator explains: “Our focus is always to listen to children. They are experts of their own experiences. Their views and perspectives should be taken into consideration in decisions about their lives, as well as in broader policymaking. This is why Tdh works at both the micro and macro level to ensure that the right of all children to be heard is fulfilled, especially the most vulnerable.”


As a result, the study recommends among others that:

  • States should reduce child detention to an absolute minimum and to make alternatives to detention available.
  • Children should be given access to a justice that is adapted to their needs.
  • No child should be submitted to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Each child must be treated with respect and should have access to contact his/her family and get juridical assistance.
  • Migration is never a reason to detain children.

“Many people thought it was impossible to meaningfully and ethically involve children in a global research of this scale, but we did it. The results show the importance of having children’s voices included, and reminds us that, with support, they too can be agents of change,” Kristen adds. We will continue the fight for a world where children are free, and we will build this world alongside children. 

Read the General Assembly Report

Watch our video bringing children's voices to the world: