Building a Global Movement to End Child Detention

In 2012, there was very little focus on the issue of immigration detention of children within the UN system, very little pressure from regional mechanisms for change, and widespread use of immigration detention of children by governments around the world.

A group of civil society organisations, led by the International Detention Coalition, decided to initiate the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention (“the campaign”) in 2012 to build a civil society movement around ending the immigration detention of children. 

One of the first goals of the campaign was to strengthen the human rights standards relating to the immigration detention of children. In September 2012, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (‘the Committee’) held a Day of General Discussion on the rights of all children in the context of international migration. Supporters of the campaign effectively lobbied for the Committee to include recommendations that immigration detention is always a child rights’ violation and never in the best interests of the child. 

Following this development, campaign supporters began to work with UN groups, intergovernmental organisations, and civil society representatives to leverage this clarification, and to assist states to “completely and expeditiously” end the practice of child immigration detention. The organisations involved in the campaign mobilised their networks around this unified call, culminating in the UN Secretary General identifying ending child immigration detention as an “achievable priority” during the 2013 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.

These groups recognised that together they had made some significant achievements, and decided to create a space for further collaboration with key stakeholders holding specific technical expertise. The Inter-Agency Working Group to End Child Immigration Detention was launched in June 2014, and is currently comprised of over 20 prominent UN and regional human rights experts, intergovernmental organisations, and NGOs who collectively represent stakeholders in every country of the world. Members meet quarterly aiming to standardise language and re-assert the standard that no child should be in immigration detention. 

The International Detention Coalition, as Chair of the Inter-Agency Working Group, has acted as a lead convener of the global push to end child immigration detention. We have worked to foster communication and bridge gaps between critical UN and civil society partners; to gather and promote best practice examples regarding rights-based alternatives to detention for children; and supported the Global Campaign to End the Immigration Detention of Children by hosting its secretariat. 

Four years have passed since this movement began and we can see significant progress. The campaign has built the foundation for a growing social movement around ending child detention with over 100 civil society organisations, including the pre-eminent organisations working on child migration, now supporting the campaign. Together, these organisations have the ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands of campaigners worldwide to take action. 

Further, ending the detention of children is now routinely referenced in General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions, as well as in opinions and decisions taken by regional human rights bodies such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The standard that children should never be detained was embedded as a central principle of the UN Secretary General’s Report for State discussions as part of the 19 September UNGA high-level meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. This transformation has provided even more impetus for States to take steps to avoid the harms to children inflicted by detention.

Global Campaign to End Child Detention


An image from the Global Campaign to End Child Detention, which is coordinated by the IDC.

“Ending child detention is an achievable priority over the next five years: now is it a critical time to work together”

Grant Mitchell, Director of the IDC